they mean no good to us they mean us no harm either

The title refers to a quote from John Crowley’s Little, Big, when the family matriarch is trying to set down what she knows of the Fair Folk for her children and grandchildren, caught up in the same overarching Grand Tale that she is:

[Violet] meant that [the fairies] didn’t care, that their concerns weren’t ours, that if they brought gifts–and they had; if they arranged a marriage or an accident–and they had; if they watched and waited–and they had–and they did, none of that was with any reason to aid or hurt mortals. Their reasons were their own–if they had reasons at all, she sometimes thought they didn’t, any more than stones or seasons.

The ‘fairies’ in Little, Big aren’t limited to the ‘pixie’ type, any more than the book is limited to bucolic rural settings; they range from small phantomlike creatures which may or may not resolve on film to kingfishers to a Tarot deck to ‘the lady with the alligator purse’ and a reincarnation of a Great Hero trying to take over the world. There are changelings, the Sandman, fairy tale talking storks and more. The book itself covers several generations of a family entangled in a grand Tale of Epic Proportions, at least in terms of length, and of a complexity that takes that many generations and that many pages to properly set out. It begins with Smoky Barnable, a nebulously non-present man given solidity and presence by Daily Alice, setting off to marry his beloved according to a vague set of directions: “Which is how Smoky came to be walking not riding to Edgewood, with a wedding-suit in his pack old not new, and food made not bought; and why he had begun to look around himself for a place to spend the night, that he must beg or find but not pay for.” It ends with…well, I’m still not quite sure what it ends with. The Fairy Folk have ended their Tale, and the world we know has disintegrated. Smoky and Daily Alice have died, I think; well, they’re gone on to whatever comes after this, and the fairies have ended the Tale. The novel might make more sense if we knew what the Tale was, but the Fairy Folk in this novel aren’t telling; they don’t feel the need to explain all that to mere humans.

Little, Big is not for everyone. It’s a slow novel. It’s a long complicated novel that starts out merely mildly complex and over 500 pages progresses off into a fantasy world that’s hard to parse even for those of us who read a LOT of complex books and EVEN MORE about fantasy. If you like simple, straightforward, short novels about ‘faerie folk’ who present themselves in solid form on your doorstep…don’t waste your time (and mine, if you’re the sort to complain to the person who suggested the book in the first place.) Indeed, in fairness, it took me an entire day shut up in airplanes and airports to finish the book, and I’ve read it before.

That said, this is another book for people who want a long, dilatory, complex, meandering book with a plot that’s more digression than action, requiring flipping back and forth to remind oneself what plot points led to this plot point, and a family genealogy in the front to keep track of characters. It reminds me of those rambling pointless books written in an archaic tone such as (forgive me, English majors) The Life and Opinios of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman, which is, frankly, more digression than plot.


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