Final Rating : 8.5/10
A bittersweet, moving story set in Winnipeg, Casey Plett’s new novel Little Fish follows Wendy Reimer over the course of a few weeks in November and December, as her life comes apart and she’s forced to reckon with society, her family and ultimately, herself.
It’s the debut novel for Plett, who’s previously authored a collection of short stories (A Safe Girl to Love) and co-edited last year’s Meanwhile, Elsewhere, an anthology of speculative fiction. It builds on themes and ideas from her collection and shows her coming into her own as a novelist.
It opens with Wendy finding out her Mennonite grandmother has died; a phone call after the service from a distant family friend implies that, like Wendy, her grandfather was trans. From there, Wendy embarks on finding out the truth about her opa. However, Little Fish is hardly a detective story; Wendy is hardly introspective or inquisitive enough to dig into the past.
Instead, Plett’s book focuses on a few weeks of Wendy’s life: her ups, her downs and the struggles a trans woman faces in today’s world. There are the inventible catcalls and inexplicable bonding, just as there are small moments of triumph and heartbreak. She loses her job, than a friend has a close call doing an outcall. Her dad, well-meaning but also kind of a mess, invests money in a scheme Wendy can’t help but think is misguided. And by the time Wendy’s ready to reckon with her grandfather, she’s struggling to make sense of herself.
For Wendy, life’s measured in pint glasses and shots: her alcohol intake would make Phillip Marlow take notice, and it’s more scary than anything. When things go south for Wendy, she retreats into drink just to function; when she looks at others, she only sees her faults, not her qualities.
For example, see how Wendy shuts herself down after a creep drifter takes advantage of her while she’s walking home drunk:
“Wendy shut her laptop and placed three melatonins under her tongue. While they dissolved she changed into her nightgown, then filled a pint glass, half wiskey and half water. She stood by her dresser and methodically drank the whole glass down. Gulp, gulp, gulp, breathe… She pulled the blankets over her without turning off the light. Ten hours later, she woke up cold and in a sweat from dreams of – she put her hand to her head – did she have any dreams?” (pg 98)
Instead of reporting it, even to her friends, Wendy self-medicates herself, shoving her problems away behind a haze of pills and booze. Late in the novel, her dad suggests counting her drinks so she can keep track of her drinking; but even when only to herself, Wendy can’t be entirely honest.
Through the book, Plett’s prose walks a nice line between showing Wendy’s struggles while also remaining distant enough that it’s hard not to sympathize with Wendy, if not identify with her. Although she’s constantly putting herself down, she’s a kind soul who’s friends with two local homeless men and helps a stranger with their burgeoning gender issues – although the way this run-in drains Wendy emotionally, it makes me wonder about how I’ve come across in the past, and more thankful to people who’ve listened and generously given me advice. But at the same time, it also makes me more sympathetic to Wendy, who even at her low points, still tries to do right.
In her first collection of stories (now available as a free PDF via the author), Plett dealt with several issues surrounding trans women: the mixture of danger and banality of sex work; the way society rejects those who come out; the intersection of Mennonite fundamentalism and gender expression. In Little Fish, Plett picks up on those themes, and more, and winds them into a compelling and moving story. It’s been a long time coming for those who first picked up her book over three years ago, but Little Fish is worth the wait. Recommended.