Little, Big by John Crowley
This is a novel to savor. It’s the Tale of Edgewood, a five-fronted house in the center of a pentangle of lands somewhere in upstate New York. This house, built around 1900 by architect John Drinkwater for his bride, Violet Bramble, daughter of Theosophists, hosts an ever-widening circle of Drinkwaters, Clouds, and Barnables. Violet as a child was known to have seen fairies, and one of her sons uses his granddaughters to entice and photograph them. The folk of the surrounding woods have names like Marjorie Juniper, Grandfather Trout, Amy Flowers, Robin Bird – while not fairies exactly they are sympathetic spirits. The world they inhabit touches ours, but is not the same as ours. Little, Big of the title refer to the interpenetrating realities variously larger and smaller than one another, and their larger and smaller inhabitants.
City cousin George Mouse hosts a party, at which his quiet noncommittal friend, Smoky Barnable, meets tall red-haired Daily Alice, for whom he leaves everything to join her at Edgewood: having children, teaching school to the neighbors, tinkering with the orrery (large moving brass model of the solar system) at the top of the house. Smoky, a mild rational man who doesn’t believe in fairies, lives with a household who consult an ancient tarot, keep secrets, and pursue dreams. Daily Alice’s father, who wrote dozens of children’s books about animals, confesses to one of his grandchildren that he didn’t make up the stories, he just eavesdropped on the small creatures of the woods and fields.
Society deteriorates. In the City, George Mouse converts a city block of rowhouses into Old Law Farm, the center an open space where he and those who join him raise goats and chickens, vegetables, and burn excess furniture to stay warm over increasingly long bitter winters. Wolves human and canine roam the streets, Old Law Farm is barricaded with locks, bars, and bricked-up doors and windows. Smoky and Daily Alice’s youngest child, Auberon, comes to the City to seek his fortune and takes up residence there, falling in love with Sylvie, a Puerto Rican with a Destiny, whose disappearance hollows out his sense of purpose, all his joy. He writes scripts for a popular soap opera, “A World Elsewhere,” based on his grandfather’s children’s stories.
A Hero wakes from eight centuries asleep, more demagogue than savior, and, questing for his lost Empire, foments war. In the struggle and economic collapse people starve, winters deepen and lengthen, and his Empire shudders along. Violet Bramble’s illegitimate daughter Ariel Hawksquill, a mage in the art of memory, first advises a cabal who seek to control the Hero, then when they turn on her, casts her lot with him. But Ariel’s wisdom lacks the chaos element. Late in the story, at Edgewood she observes, “No memory mansion of her own was built more overlappingly, with more corridors, more places that were two places at once, more precise in its confusions, than this house. She felt it rise around her, John’s dream, Violet’s castle, tall and many-roomed. It took hold of her mind, as though it were in fact made of memory; she saw, and it swept her into a fearful clarity to see, that if this were her own mind’s house, all her conclusions would now be coming out quite differently; quite, quite differently.”
Little, Big is full of joys and sorrows, wonderfully apt names and a multitude of small brilliant observations. One could read it a hundred times and find new connections, new notions, surprises and satisfactions. Like the greatest fictions of invented places, it has unerring internal consistency, integrity. We are the playthings of time and space, and other worlds interweave with the one we’re accustomed to, in ways we might glimpse or may never be capable of acknowledging. If you find “the world is too much with us,” as William Wordsworth’s poem says, take respite. Dig into this Tale, reimagine life.