Tuesday, 11 November 2003

John Crowley: Little, Big (1981)

Edition: Methuen, 1983
Review number: 1196

From the very first pages of Little, Big, it is clear that it is one of the most original and different fantasy novels ever written. Over twenty years it seems to have become undeservedly forgotten; by rights it should be one of the top classics of the genre.

The story begins with a journey, as Smokey Bramble travels upstate from New York to the strange home of his fiancee, Daily Alice Drinkwater, to get married. (Most of the characters have these interesting, slightly Dickensian names.) She comes from a family of mystics, whose lives are ruled by a Tarot deck with unique trumps and whose country house Edgewood is situated on the edge of the Wild Wood and where photographs taken in the grounds occasionally show traces of strange little beings. It is a kind of folly, built by an architect as a pattern book to show each of his designs as it is viewed from different angles.

The setting of the novel, beyond the house and its gardens, is a senescent USA, where everything is beginning to fall apart, where civilization seems to be falling gradually away (though daytime soaps still thrive). Technologies are being given up, and the atmosphere of much of the novel is rather like that of the subgenre of science fiction known as "steampunk". There is also a mysterious supernatural side to things, one which is seen only by those who have the right gifts. Even they see only in part "as through a glass darkly". The universal uncertainty as to what is really going on, even felt by professional seer Ariel Hawksquill, forms a major part of the atmosphere of Little, Big, and it is a novel in which background plays an extremely important role.

Little, Big doesn't have the usual influences of fantasy - it is refreshing to read something in the genre that shows no traces of Tolkien. Some parts of it (the decaying Americana in particular) aren't really from the genre at all. Little, Big is perhaps more closely allied to the magic realism school of literature, with hints of a relationship to Salman Rushdie and John Fowles. The story of the girls who during the First World War supposedly took photographs of faries in the garden - which was filmed as Fairy Tale - is really the closest thing to an influence I can think of. It is even quite different from other fantasy novels about houses, such as Gormenghast and High House.

In the other direction, an obvious successor is Neil Gaiman, particularly in American Gods. But both in what influenced it and what it has influenced, Little, Big stands by itself, a unique and fascinating loner. Every time I re-read it, Little, Big seduces me with its magic all over again.

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