Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Review - Little, Big

Little, Big
by John Crowley
1982 World Fantasy Award Winner for Best Novel

At the end of the nineteenth century an architect builds an exotic country house with a floor plan that anyone could become lost in and five faces that gave it the appearance of a completely different style depending on how you approached it. His wife's family believes that the universe consists of worlds nested within worlds and that each world within was larger than the one outside. They also believe that the boundaries between these worlds can be crossed and the residents of those deeper in are what most people think of as faeries.

Over the course of a century generations of their family live and die in the house feeling that the history of their large family is a tale that is building to something. The strange and magical lurk among them and Little, Big is the story of their lives.

This book was a monster. As you might guess I can work through books quickly but I was lucky if I could read seventy-five pages a day of Little, Big and the novel is over five hundred pages long. The complication for me was that the prose bobbed and weaved, spun in circles about the reader creating lengthy digressions that branched like the most tangled of shrub losing the thread of narrative as it wanders in its poetic labyrinth until I was exhausted from deciphering Crowley's archaic formations.

Making things more complicated is the fact that there isn't really a proper narrative to the book. One threatens to break out on occasion but the thread doesn't progress so much as spiral outward with those plots typically trailing off with only the barest hint of resolution. The reader isn't getting more than a tiny fragment of what hints at a larger picture as enter in the middle and leaving before the end. The only thing that someone can do is hold on and hope that by those last few pages that the whole thing is revealed to be greater than the sum of its parts. It's uncommon for a book to promise this and then actually deliver on it and with Little, Big I'm not entirely sure if it was successful. So much of the plot is left hanging or developed for hundreds of pages and then the reader is told that it didn't really matter that the ending was unsatisfactory but at the same time Crowley ending some aspects of his story as a whole very well.

Which comes together to make this a novel of language and structure rather than one of plot. Crowley shifts focus approximately once a page constantly building on his metaphor of worlds within worlds and the smaller containing the larger. Everything in the novel centers on those themes that seem to exist for their own purpose rather than being part of something else.

Aspects of the novel are very good but they're entangled with the wearying portions and enjoyment of the book is going to be entirely dependent on how much the reader appreciates Crowley's use of language. I can't say that I found it to be worth the effort but some people might find value in the poetic style.