Brilliant or Boring? John Crowley – Little, Big

This is my favorite author’s favorite book, so to say I had high expectations is a bit of an understatement. It is also one of the most acclaimed fantasy novels ever, having won the World Fantasy Award and having been nominated for several other awards. It’s a Fantasy Masterworks title, it keeps coming up on Best Of lists and is generally one of the most beloved books out there. So, the pressure was high and maybe that’s why the story lost steam for me around the half-way point. And now, after finally having finished reading it, I honestly can’t say whether I found it brilliant or boring.

by John Crowley

Published: Harper Perennial, 1981
eBook: 564 pages
My rating:

Opening line: On a certain day in June, 19—, a young man was making his way on foot northward from the great City to a town or place called Edgewood, that he had been told of but had never visited.

John Crowley’s masterful Little, Big is the epic story of Smoky Barnable, an anonymous young man who travels by foot from the City to a place called Edgewood—not found on any map—to marry Daily Alice Drinkawater, as was prophesied. It is the story of four generations of a singular family, living in a house that is many houses on the magical border of an otherworld. It is a story of fantastic love and heartrending loss; of impossible things and unshakable destinies; and of the great Tale that envelops us all. It is a wonder.

This is the story of the Drinkwater family, following them through several generations and watching, alongside them, the Tale unfold. It all begins (at least for us readers) with an anomymous and almost invisible young man named Smoky Barnable who falls in love with the slightly mysterious Daily Alice Drinkwater and goes to her even more mysterious house to marry her. Both the time and setting are kept vague, although it becomes clear that “the City” is New York and that Edgewood, the Drinkwater house, is not too far from it. So Smoky goes to marry his Alice and becomes part of a decidedly strange family. Great Aunt Cloud reads tarot cards as if they told her actual truths, Auberon’s old photographs of Alice and her sister as girls seem to show strange beings alongside them, the house itself is a crazy mixture of architectural styles, and the Drinkwaters seem to be in on a grand secret.

As an astute fantasy reader (and you don’t even need to be all that attentive), it is very clear that the Drinkwater secret has something to do with fairies. The word “fairy” isn’t mentioned until about halfway through the book, but all the descriptions and hints point in that direction. The family members also keep mentioning being part of the Tale and thus each having to play their part, although nobody seems to know quite what Tale it is, which part they’re playing, whether they will be there to witness its end, or even what the point of it all is. But it does give the book and the Drinkwater family in particular, an air of mystery, a feeling of aloofness, of being in on something us regular mortals will never understand. I quite like this Pan’s Labyrinth-esque juxtaposition of regular life with something magical. Except eventually, I’d like to actually see the fairies or at least know that they exist and the Drinkwaters aren’t just a family who’s collectively gone coocoo.

So what’s this big book actually about, you ask. Well… it starts out with something resembling a plot, with Smoky and Alice getting together, getting married and having children of their own. We get to know them and their family members, we learn about Smoky’s past, about Alice and Sophie as children and their strange connection to Edgewood and its surroundings (plus the fairies nobody calls by name). Then we go back further in time and find out how Edgewood came to be and why, exactly, the Drinkwater family seems to be the only one who knows about fairies and is somehow connected to them. I loved these bits very much, even though I can’t say that they had a lot of plot.
But then comes a sort of time jump and we focus on Smoky and Alice’s son and his adventures in the big City and those, while interesting, just dragged on too long without leading anywhere. A side plot was also introduced sometime mid-book which felt jarring to me. It’s not that the side plot doesn’t fit into the overall story (although I think it would have worked just as well without it) but throwing it in so late in the book made it feel like a lazy afterthought. This part, the third quarter of the book, took me a ridiculous amount of time to read because I was annoyed by that time at still not having received any sort of information about what the hell all of this is supposed to be about and then about having to read about a guy becoming a drunk because his girlfriend left him… It was just not my jam. Not that Crowley didn’t describe these things really well, I was just hoping for a tiny bit of fantasy in my fantasy novel. After 300 pages of realism and weirdness, it’s okay to give me more than half a chapter of magic.

So the book became work rather than fun, I put it aside for a longer period of time and when I picked it up, reading was slow going. Until I got closer and closer to the end and my hopes rose up again. You see, as the end drew near, I was hoping for this bombastic, epic, maybe twisty ending. That didn’t happen. And I am well aware that this probably just isn’t the kind of book that wants to deliver a super epic, twisty, surprising, or even particularly emotional ending. Just because you don’t mention fairies doesn’t mean they’re not obvious. And just because nobody outright says where the Tale is leading doesn’t mean you can’t have hopes for it. After all, for a plan that was several generations in the making, expecting something big isn’t too much to ask, is it? But just like this book isn’t about plot or fantasy or even relationships so much, the ending didn’t do much more for me than let me know the story is over. The Tale is done, everyone has played their part, for better or worse, and now it’s over. I think I even said out loud: This is it? That’s really all there is?

That sounds rather disappointing, so why am I so undecided about whether to love or hate this book? Well, you see, John Crowley can really write! I mean, keeping me entertained for hundreds of pages in which barely anything happens, when those fairies I was desperately waiting for refused to show up, and most characters are kept at arm’s lenght, that’s already a feat. Doing it with language that flows beautifully, that paints pictures in your mind and creates atmosphere, that’s something else. I admit, during the Auberon parts even that wasn’t enough to keep me really hooked, but there is no denying that Crowley has a gift with words.
And it’s not just that the language sounds good on a sentence level. He also manages to conjure up believable (if strange) characters seemingly without effort. I may not be particularly fond of some of the characters in this book, but I do care about them in a way. The Drinkwater family is rather large and we don’t get to know all of its members closely, but the ones we do all feel like real people. People that don’t let us, as the reader, get too close to them, but interesting specimens to watch from afar.

I am no closer to knowing how to feel about this book than I was just after I finished it. I do feel a bit disappointed at reading so many pages for this little outcome. No matter how nice the language, I feel that the author had promised certain things, certain fantasy elements, that weren’t delivered. As a work of literary fiction, this is probably a brilliant novel. As a fantasy, I don’t know. My rating isn’t particularly meaningful, it’s what I think the book deservers at this moment in time. Maybe someday I’ll re-read it, find something new to love about it, and adjust my rating accordingly. Or maybe I’ll never feel the urge to pick this book up again and change the rating to something lower? Maybe I was just not smart enough to get this book. I loved the first half, didn’t like the second, and the ending was a let-down.

MY RATING: 6/10 – Good-ish


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