Best Fairy Tale Books: A Review of Little, Big by John Crowley

March 15, 2024

At the start of this tale, one Smoky Barnable sets off to marry Daily Alice—but first, he has to find her. Edgewood is off the beaten path, much like Little, Big itself—no ordinary dwelling place. The upstate New York mansion has three hundred and sixty-five stairs, seven chimneys, fifty-two doors, twelve (“twelve what? There must be twelve of something”). The mansion is a pastiche of styles, many houses within one, multi-faceted, almost kaleidoscopic. It’s also a doorway into Faerie, the realm of otherworldly folk.

In Crowley’s novel, Faerie is nestled within and overlapping with the material world, sometimes larger, other times smaller than the reality we know. The novel speaks the language of magic through recognizable tropes and props—changelings, Tarot, occultism, and turn-of-the-century spiritualism—but Little, Big is a magical world of its own, evoking the wonder and bewilderment of Faerie. As such, the plot widens and contracts, spinning concentric circles and following characters across large swaths of time. You’ll have to turn back to the family tree diagram frequently to keep the Brambles, Drinkwaters, and Mouses straight, but it’s worth it—and those names!

Magic is the backbone of this novel, but its major throughline is faith, with a minor in innocence. How do we find ourselves when either are lacking or lost? What do we carry into adulthood? Those who can’t ignore the pull of magic come off as vague, perpetuating confusion, offering little clarity. The doubters either try to quantify or avoid magic entirely, only to find it at their doorsteps later in life. Little, Big’s magic isn’t charming or infused with morality; magic, like nature, just is. It’s a frame of mind, a sense of detached wonder, respect for the unknown, an ongoing dialogue with mystery. Either you take up the call to magic or you don’t, remain doubtful, but that doesn’t change magic’s veracity.

How do we reconcile the inexplicable with day-to-day reality? When there’s “otherness”—in Little, Big’s case, other beings, other abilities, other perceptions of reality—how do we remain a part of established society? Crowley’s characters brush up against the boundaries of normalcy but leave the tug-of-war between “crazy” or “prophetic” to us readers. There are no witch hunts, no threats of insane asylums. Crowley’s fictional family is protected from this brand of tension by being their own enclosed society. While we follow various individuals, the story resists the typical ideology of individualism, focusing instead on the strength and power of the collective. It’s not about one hero or heroine’s adventure, but an entire family’s.

Disorienting though it may be, Little, Big will expand your way of seeing the world, shrinking it to the size of a cursed trout and widening it out to the nature of time itself. This is no ordinary reading experience. You need not follow all the details. Beguilement is part of the journey. The story will wash over you, as magic does its characters, tingling at the edge of your consciousness forevermore.

About the Author: Sasha Bailyn lives in New York state surrounded by trees and her son’s pillows forts. She writes memoir and magical realism. For regular content on the life of a bibliophile / writer / mother / magician, follow her on Substack.

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