Book Review: Little, Big by John Crowley

You should not approach “Little, Big” with any preconceptions.  It is an unusual work of fantasy.  I have been wanting to read it for years and never got around to it.  Recently I came across it on a list of old Nebula Award nominees I was perusing looking for reading material and I thought, why not?  I ordered it and began to read, and then found out, completely coincidentally, that John Crowley had been teaching at Clarion West and was doing a reading at the downtown public library shortly after I was moving to Seattle.  That’s another subject, incidentally, public readings by authors.  I have never done one, but I have often wondering how I would do if I were offered the opportunity.  With a few notable exceptions such as Harlan Ellison in his heyday, authors are not public performers.  Their real performances are alone in front of their keyboards or, as when Crowley wrote “Little, Big” back in the late 1970s, their typewriters.  Writers are solitary folk who weave their works alone.  There is a curious time-slip involved, as the writer imparts the words for an imagined audience who will read it in the future.  Even John Crowley, at the library podium, was reading printed-out words he had previously written.

I digress, but not far.  For as I read “Little, Big” and became involved in the complex intricacy of the language and characters, I wondered what the author went through as he wrote it.  As the initial thrill of writing is a solitary one, the ecstasy of the writer/reader relationship is a strange sort of delayed reaction.  I wanted to ask Crowley what he went through as he wrote “Little, Big” in the question and answer time at the end of his reading, but I wimped out and instead asked a general question about his writing process to which he gave a vague non-answer.  I don’t think I really need to ask the question, though.  Whenever the writing is going the way it should, either in first draft or rewrite, it is a thrilling, glorious experience, a feeling of destiny fulfilled.

“Little, Big” chronicles the stories of a family who lives in a mansion at Edgewood, a place north of a city that is never named but is implied as New York.  This family has intimate association with fairies, but the magical characters are at the periphery of the tale, always there but implied and not center stage.  Instead, the different family members live out their lives through several generations, lives replete with tragedy and mystery, until in the end the survivors are summoned to a special parliament, a parliament of the fairies, which brings closure to the book’s multiple story lines.

As I said, it is a complex book.  It is not an easy fantasy to get into, such as “The Lord of the Rings” is, with a straightforward story and clear good and evil.  Instead, shades of gray, shadow and light dominate.  Nothing is clear.  The characters pursue obscure destinies, seemingly propelled by forces beyond their control, right up until the end.

The language, though, and the building of character, is sublime.  You cannot approach this book as fast food.  It is a slow feast, during which you must chew the food thoroughly, sip the wine slowly, appreciate the getting there as much as the destination.

It’s a good read, though it is not a book I would read over and over as much as “The Lord of the Rings”, which, as I mentioned before, is fantasy in quite a different vein.  You must slow down for “Little, Big”.  You must take it on its own terms.  You must approach it as fine cuisine, not as a fast pick-me-up.  I would recommend it, but you have to be prepared to enjoy it.  I think of the ideal situation as being in front of a fireplace, relaxing in an easy chair, a reading lamp on behind you, a chiaroscuro of shadows playing on the walls.  Enchanting, perhaps, is a good word to use.  It takes you to another world, a world seemingly only slightly different, but actually radically different from our own.  It draws you away with hints and promises, opens the hearts and souls of the characters so that they become your own, lures you into the midst of the wild and magical – and then leaves you there.

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