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Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Little, Big - John Crowley

I'm going to try to review Little, Big, and I hope I don't get tangled up, but it may be unavoidable because it's that kind of book.  I really liked this book but I can see that I'm going to have a difficult time explaining why others would enjoy it. It's a modern fantasy but it's also a sad and moving saga about several generations of the Drinkwater clan, whose members have always had a rather unique connection to the realm of Faerie.  They are not of Faerie themselves, but they believe themselves to be of special interest--both "protected", as well as privy to certain knowledge that ordinary people lack. 
The book jumps back and forth chronologically across space and time, and it is sometimes useful to refer to the family tree in the front of the book, especially since characters of different generations sometimes share the same name. There are certain constants that anchor the story, one of these being the family home--Edgewood-- a spectacular but now-crumbling edifice that was built around the turn of the century by architect and family patriarch, John Drinkwater. Edgewood is an amalgam of many houses, or several houses that overlap each other. Think of a drawing by M.C. Escher...corridors with odd turnings that don't follow the laws of physics, staircases leading nowhere, etc. Edgewood is a character in its own right, from its lintels to its floorboards, including the mice nesting inside its walls. It is set in a bucolic landscape on the outskirts of a large city, which is referred to as The City, or sometimes the Apple, but it's not really the NYC that we all know; instead it's some dystopian version of it.
The book opens with Smoky Barnable setting out on a journey that will culminate in his marriage to Daily Alice, his beloved. However, his mode of travel has to meet certain conditions: he has to walk rather than ride, and must beg or find a place to sleep, but not pay for it with money. Smoky goes along willingly with this, because he's been told that that he is part of the Tale, as is everyone in the Drinkwater clan. But what the Tale is, nobody knows. 
There is no use trying to summarize the plot, since plot seems to be the least of the author's concerns, and is almost incidental to the fun to be had from reading this 500+ page tome. It's the opposite of a page-turner; it meanders along in a leisurely way, and wanders off on tangents about religion, philosophy, and the weather. The atmosphere is dream-like and a lot of the action actually occurs while people are asleep or dreaming. 
The characters are interesting and memorable. First, I love their names, like Nora Cloud, George Mouse, and Violet Bramble. While their lives contain the same ratio of joy to disappointment as other people's, theirs have an added layer of tragedy due to the baleful influence of Faerie, which exerts control in ways both great and small. People fall in love at first sight without knowing why, and feel themselves being pulled in various directions according to some overarching Destiny. If they think they have any idea what or why, eventually they realize they are mistaken.
The writing and the imagery are beautiful and, what would be a good word?-- enchanting. In fact, a comment made by someone about Edgewood, the house, is an equally apt description of what reading the book is like: "You can get lost for days in there. For days."   
There is an ancient Wild Wood, an enchanted fish that dimly remembers having once been a man, and a kingfisher who grants wishes and strikes bargains (bargains in which the humans inevitably come out on short end of the stick). If hearing about all these talking animals puts you in mind of Narnia, please know that it's nothing like that at all. Because there is also frank and sensual descriptions of sex, experiments with hallucinogenic drugs, filth, poverty, and death. 

Things remind you of other things...there are many subtle allusions to Lewis Carroll, both his writings and his photographs. I've never before read a novel that deals with the well-documented Edwardian craze for spirit photography, or the taking of photographs that, once developed, revealed ghostly images that were invisible to the naked eye.

The nature of Faerie is that it is elusive; it can't be nailed down, but can only be experienced like a dream, a half-forgotten memory, or something glimpsed out of the corner of your eye. The elusiveness of "Little, Big" will either charm and delight you, or it'll annoy the heck out of you. Depends upon your nature.

1 comment:

  1. Some further thoughts on Lewis Carroll allusions in Little, Big: the fish servant, the White Knight, Sylvie & Bruno, changes in size from tiny to huge, game of checkers, nonsense poems, mathematics...