Mar 16, 2008

Little, Big by John Crowley

Little, Big opens with Smoky Barnable walking to Edgewood to get married to Daily Alice Drinkwater. Walking because he was told he must arrive on foot, not riding. Edgewood is a place that cannot be found on any maps. It is a house that is many houses inside one another, a house that is larger on the inside than it is on the outside. The further in you go, the bigger it becomes.

Little, Big isn’t, however, just about Smoky and Daily Alice. It’s about five generations of the Drinkwater family and their close ties with Faerie. It’s about Edgewood, a mysterious house that seems to be as alive as any of the family members.

It took me almost a hundred pages to truly get into this book, but once I did, I fell in love. It happened one night when I stayed up late reading, and ended up falling asleep with the book in my arms. And then – has this ever happened to any of you? – I started dreaming in the language of the book. And I realized that I wanted to be inside the word of Little, Big. I was conquered. It had lured me in.

This novel reminded me of two others: A Hundred Years of Solitude and Lud-in-The-Mist. The first because of the beauty of the language, because of a certain poetic quality to some of the events described, because of the amount of times I found myself going back to look at the family tree (I don’t mean this in a bad way). The second because this too is a book about Faerie in which its inhabitants remain mostly hidden, lurking just behind the pages. It’s a book that shows the effects of magic, of wonder, on the lives of those whose path it crosses. Both Lud-in-The-Mist and Little, Big are books that make you feel like you are permanently about to discover something magic, something larger than life. And – ideally, at least – isn’t that how we like the world to feel like?

The plot of Little, Big is like a labyrinth in which it was a pleasure to get lost. The events are not always told chronologically. We travel back and forth from the time of Violet Branble and the construction of Edgewood, to the strange bargain with Faerie that her son August strikes, to Daily Alice and Smoke’s marriage, and to the adventures of their youngest son Auberon in the City. Also, the story is full of allusions, veiled or unveiled, to the works of Lewis Carroll, to Keats, to Arthur Rackman, to Thornton Burgess, and it largely incorporates the myth of the emperor Frederick Barbarossa.

Little, Big is a strange, hypnotic book in which more is suggested than said, and John Crowley is an author who rewards his readers’ perceptiveness. Although things often remain unspoken, you can see them moving between the lines, coming to life, gaining shape. Then they step out of the shadows and it's as if they'd been there all along.

The fact that the language of this novel ended up taking over my dreams was made easy by its hazy, sensual, otherworldly quality. Crowley’s writing reminded me of Bradbury’s at times – yes, it is that good. Here are a few of my favourite passages:
First she wanted to taste the sweat that shone on his throat and fragile clavicle; then he chose to undo the tails of her shirt, that she had tied up beneath her breasts; then, but then impatient they forgot about taking turns and quarrelled silently, eagerly over each other, like pirates dividing treasure long sought, long imagined, long withheld.
‘What I wonder is, maybe the world is growing older. Less all alive. Or is it only my growing older?’
‘Everybody always wonders that. I don’t think, really, anyone could feel the world grow older. Its life is far too long for that. What maybe you learn as you grow older is that the world is old—very old. When you’re young, the world seems young. That’s all.’
She yawned hugely and tried to speak at the same time, and laughed. ‘I said so you’re not going back?’
‘Even after you find your fortune?’
He didn’t say I’ve found it, thought it was true; he’d known it since they’d become lovers. Become lovers: like a wizardry, like frogs become princes.
Even though I loved Little, Big, I’ll be the first to admit that this novel will not please everyone. I can see how its suggestiveness, its illusiveness, its density and its slow pace could frustrate some readers. Little, Big takes patience, but I found it very, very rewarding. If you don’t mind a story that is more about mood than plot, a story where a great deal of the action takes place behind the curtains, a story in which much remains unsaid and is left unresolved, then this is for you. Pick up this book and let its spell lure you in.

You can read an interview with the author about this book here.


  1. I am in two minds whether I will like this or not. The plot sounds like just my kind of book but I didn't fall in love with One Hundred Years as I found it too slow and I nearly didn't finish it. Maybe if I see it second hand I will get a copy.

  2. Hmm...I'm not sure about this but your review has definitely piqued my interest! Nice cover too. :)

  3. Yep, another review that is not only beautifully written, but gives me enough information to know whether this book would likely be for me or not. In this case, probably not. Just because of the way I usually have to read in 5 or 10 minute bursts. But it does sound quite wonderful, and I think I'll write this one down for a day when I can give it the kind of attention it needs.

  4. Hi Nymeth! I have this book and hopefully I start reading it uh sometime this year. Sounds really interesting, comparing it to Lud in the Midst and One Hundred Years of Solitude. I haven't read either but those two are on my goals for this year as well.

  5. Rhinoa: There is no denying that this one is slow going too, but maybe the fantasy theme will make up for it for you? A used copy shouldn't be hard to find, so if you have the chance, do have a look at it!

    Melody: The cover is gorgeous, isn't it? And I love the fact that the spine is purple. It looks nice next to my purple Poppet on the shelf :P

    Debi: This one is definitely best left for a time when you have plenty of time and patience to devote to it. I'm glad that you fond my post informative :)

    Lightheaded: I hope you enjoy all three of them, and as always I look forward to reading your thoughts :)

  6. I love what you said about falling asleep and starting to dream with the book in mind. Sometimes I will dream about the book as if I'm still reading it and in my dream I "finish" it. It's so strange. Of course I'll wake up and then am anxious to get to the book and see if my dream is at all like the rest of the story. How crazy is that! Anyway, good review as always. I don't think I'd heard of this book before but it sounds pretty interesting.

  7. Well, I've got to re-locate this and finish it! I started it a couple of months ago, put it aside for whatever reasons, and don't even know where it is; your review will encourage me to find it!

  8. Just found your blog ...I'm having an online secret auction on a handmade quilt of mine. You can find the recent posts about it on my blog. Glad I found u :)HUGS

  9. From the initial description of Edgewood, house inside of house inside of house, it sounds like you are describing one of my recurring dreams! Although my recurring dream is more of an endless house, with hidden passageways and the like.

    I love it when a book seeps into my actual dreams, and even more so when they form a sort of haze around me while I'm awake, calling to me to go back and read.

    This sounds like an interesting book. Great review as always, Nymeth.

  10. Iliana: "Finishing" a book in my dreams has never happened to me, but now I wish that it would! I guess that is a sure sign that the book has entered your mind.

    Jenclair: I hope you find it and enjoy the rest of it!

    Niki: Hello, and thank you for stopping by :) I'll go check out your auction soon.

    Literary Feline: That sounds like a cool recurring dream! I love it when that happens when books too :)

  11. I read this book almost 15 years ago and had the same reaction: I loved it, even if I didn't completely follow it at all times. I found it magical and haunting in a way I can't put my finger on. I do remember reading it nightly in my host family's living room, in the rocking chair, completely transported away from the deep, dark Finland winter.

  12. This sounds like a really interesting book. Except right now I am having trouble getting through my slower paced books, so this is probably not the book for me to read right now.

  13. Daphne: Haunting is the perfect word to describe it. I did get lost in the story at times but I was enjoying it too much to mind. I think that like you I will remember reading this one for a long time.

    Kim: It is definitely best to leave it for another time in that case. But I hope you enjoy it when the right time comes!


Thank you so much for taking the time to comment - interaction is one of my favourite things about blogging and a huge part of what keeps me going.