by John Crowley
Reviewed by Galen Strickland
Posted November 1, 2022
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John Crowley's fourth novel, Little, Big, won the World Fantasy Award, along with the Mythopoeic for fantasy literature. The latter is for work "in the spirit of the Inklings," a literary group whose most famous members were Tolkien and C. S. Lewis. I think it has more in common with James Branch Cabell, who wrote in an earlier time, as well as evoking memories of Bradbury, particularly in his Greentown and Elliot Family stories. There is another I thought of while reading certain parts, which I'll mention later. It is one of the better books I've read, as well as being one of the most frustrating, the reasons for which I'm not sure I'll be able to make clear.
Little, Big was also a finalist for Hugo, Nebula, BSFA, and Locus awards, along with the Seiun for its Japanese translation.
One of the frustrations has to do with the focus on different characters at different times, as well as a few minor characters that float in and out. The book covers several generations of an eccentric family, going back and forth in time in a random fashion, with even occasional mentions of future events, not all of which are elaborated later. It is difficult to figure out which were intended to be the main protagonists. The first we meet is Smoky Barnable, a man who had long considered himself anonymous. He had led an insular life, no friends, no formal schooling, not even home-schooling. Instead, he had educated himself from his father's immense library. When it came time for adulthood and employment, he had little to recommend him to potential employers. I gathered that the book begins about the same time as when it was published, 1981, and yet it also seems timeless, an alternate world. When Smoky finally comes to the City, the job he gets is with either the phone company or that of the publisher of phone books. His job is transferring phone listings from the books to a computer database. For a while it seemed the City was going to be just a generic one, but later it is revealed to be New York, but again, mostly a timeless and alternate version of New York.
Through one of Smoky's co-workers, George Mouse, he is introducted to Alice Dale Drinkwater. George is one of her cousins. For Smoky it was love at first sight, and he was convinced Alice felt it too. Alice and her younger sister Sophie were just visiting their City cousins, and after only a couple of later visits, Alice invites Smoky to the Drinkwater family home of Edgewood upstate. He has to follow explicit directions, not only how to get to Edgewood, but also the means of his travel, what he is to wear and bring with him. They are to be married on the day after his arrival. Dale is Alice's mother's maiden name, and since childhood she has been known by the nickname bestowed by Sophie: Daily Alice. We get flashbacks to Alice's grandfather John Drinkwater, and his bride Violet (Bramble), who came to America with her father, part of his traveling show of the mystic arts. Violet was in possession of a particularly important deck of Tarot cards, later handed down through great aunts, to aunts, finally to Daily Alice, although Sophie became more adept in their use. Edgewood was located within the nexus of five villages that surrounded it in pentagram fashion. It is not clear if John Drinkwater was aware of the location's unique properties, or if it was coincidence he built a house that contained portals to other realms. However, another frustration arose due to the fact that on numerous occasions it was stated that different doors or rooms led to Fairie, and yet the means to get to that other place always occurred somewhere else on the grounds of the vast Edgewood estate (and elsewhere), including for the "climactic" event. The quotes around that word indicates yet another frustrating thing.
Several of the above comments might seem negative, but to be clear, I recommend this book for those who love lyrical prose, magic that seems just around the corner, with the magic at times maybe just imagined by certain people, but not by others. Smoky maintained his skepticism throughout, no matter how much he may have wanted to believe, if only to be in closer union with his wife. My reference to Cabell above concerns the risque and ribald nature of some of his stories, most especially so for the first couple of decades of the 20th Century. Little, Big features several accounts of affairs, even incest, although nothing is presented in a salacious manner. There is a family tree in the front of the book, with bold lines linking marriages and children from those couples, but also dotted lines indicating children born out of wedlock, several of whom were adopted into the Drinkwater family. Violet was alredy pregnant by another man when she married John, he was aware of that, and took on the child as his own. Another of their sons, August, never married, but had multiple children with multiple women, so many that the villages around Edgwood were inhabited by his descendants and their families. Some people might read into it other possible affairs which I don't think actually happened. I won't give details of any other such events, except to say in one case lies were told about who the real father of one child was. Smoky and Alice had three daughters, all of whom were content to remain in or near Edgewood. Their youngest child was a boy, Auberon, who felt it necessary to take his chances in the City, especially due to his card reading that said he would meet a beautiful, dark-skinned woman. The fact the reading said he would also lose her did not deter him from trying. His adventures in New York reminded me of Mark Helprin's Winter's Tale, and Edgewood has similarites to the Lake of the Coheeries in that book.
If the book begins around 1980 or thereabouts, the concluding chapters can be seen as occuring at the end of the millennium. Several subplots concern evil forces arising, with a war imminent between those forces, Fairie, and the mundane world. But guess what? Another frustration, because some of those elements just fade away, or maybe were exaggerated or false to begin with. Auberon did meet and fall in love with his dark beauty, Silvie. He did lose her shortly after that, and even though they are reunited at the end, the reason for her going missing wasn't explained to my satisfaction. Then again, a lot of the meanderings of plot and characterization is a lot like real life. When you are younger your world revolves around family; parents, siblings, aunts, uncles, cousins, etc. Later it is your spouse and children, and other friends you make along the way. Not all of them will be around for your full life's journey, and you may at times be puzzled as to who is the most important for your own happiness. The only thing you can do is carry on as if your own decisions are true to your nature, and everything will work out in the end. But is there ever an end? Daily Alice's card reading, as well as advice she had received from the fairy world, said her life was important to the Tale. She felt she was the most important, not realizing the Tale includes everyone, and everything, and would continue with or without her. I identify most with Smoky, the person from the outside looking in, wanting to be a part of the wonder of that family, but adamant in not believing the magic, or unwilling to admit it if he did. If you want your plots neat and tidy this might not be your type of book. But if you're willing to take a chance on a journey that has many detours, road blocks, back tracks, and tragedy along the way, and which is open-ended with an uncertain conclusion, you are in for a beautiful, inspiring, and yes, frustrating Tale. Such is life.
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