One shouldn’t judge a book by its cover, but perhaps one can judge a book’s publishers by how a book’s cover changes over time. My copy of John Crowley’s novel Little, Big, published in the early 1980’s, has on it two people reclining in a psychadelic garden, one mustaschioed, the other listening to a nautilus shell while rainbow globules float between topiaries. The latest edition’s cover is a forlorn-looking old-timey photograph of a young woman standing on a weedy path to a stone house, most of which is obscured by the title. Google can find you quite a few more, all varied enough that you’re not sure if there aren’t four or five different books with the same title.
None of this art is entirely appropriate, but none of it is entirely inappropriate either. So, then, what is Little, Big about? It’s about love, time, fate, and the changing seasons of life. But it is told through the lives of a group of people who are perhaps caught up in world-changing events, or perhaps simply going through the motions of life and learning to live with one another’s eccentricities. There is also magic, but its presence builds slowly, like a subtle wave, that by the time you are waist-deep in it you don’t feel unnaturally wet. And that might even be the point: is the supernatural magic of fairies and wizards all that different from the magic of the first wind of winter, or of your own memory?
I don’t feel like I’m doing a good job explaining this novel. It is very dense. It took me a long time to read, both because it is long and it is hard to take in a whole lot at once. It is not a book where a whole lot happens. That’s not right. Things are constantly happening, happenings overflow from the pages, but there are not a lot of events. There are probably more characters in this book than events. I hope this is clear.
I adored Little, Big. Crowley’s language is exquisite: it transforms the mundane into the spiritually transcendent, the magical into the believable. The story moves along with the slow momentum of an iceberg, its vast weight mostly deep out-of-sight, but felt in the churn of eddies and cataracts around it. It’s one to be mulled and savored, studied maybe, or remembered suddenly when the magic at the periphery of the world seems, for a moment, stronger than usual.