An absolutely powerful collection of stories, Casey Plett’s new book A Dream of A Woman follows people trying to hack in not always great situations, with addiction, love and lust, and with simply getting by a trans woman in 2021. It’s a gorgeous collection, and one where her talents are in full bloom.
Over six stories and one novella, Plett takes readers all over the map, from dumpy apartments in New York City, shared lodging in Portland, bars in Windsor and elsewhere. Her characters are all similar in key ways: they have addiction problems, usually drink way more than is healthy, they often have a Mennonite background and they’re in various states of transition.
Indeed, Plett could be accused of writing trans women for trans women and although it’d be unfair, I can see why someone would say that. A lot of her characters seem to come from the same kind of circumstances, and maybe there’s a little truth scattered here and there from the way themes rise up and repeat (I wouldn’t know; I’ve gone out of my way to avoid reading anything about Plett’s personal life). But it also doesn’t matter: Plett’s shown her strengths in writing people with some scars before, and throughout this book, they’re always treated with kindness and generosity.
With a voice that’s completely unique, A Dream of A Woman is about real people, ones you can imagine running into at the Food Basics or a local bar, and even in only a few pages she makes them come alive. It feels like a magic trick, the way she’s able to capture a mood in a short postscript like “Floodway.” And when she stretches out, like on “Enough Trouble” she paints with broad strokes, capturing scenes of beauty and raw emotion.
The heart of this book is the novella length story “Obsulution,” which follows a young person from the Pacific Northwest from the earliest stages of their transition to their eventual adulthood. We follow their mistakes, their leaps forward, the way their pronouns shift and they slide into a new name. Family fades in and out of the picture, as do friends. It’s told in a blunt, honest way. Half in jest, I call it estrodial realism: it doesn’t just capture the moods and feelings, it takes a wide-angle shot of life, from drinking PBR and playing Smash in your 20s to long talks about gender over a glass of red, to working the late shift and coming home exhausted. “Obsulution,” which is spread out throughout the book, has some of Plett’s best writing and a character who just leaps off the page.
But there are other great moments, too. The first story in the book, “Hazel and Christopher” follows Hazel as she looks for an old schoolmate and friend. Without giving too much away, Plett turns the story on it’s head, gently unsetting the reader’s expectations, and gives it a twist ending that’ll leave readers unsettled. Meanwhile, in “Couldn’t Hear You Talk Anymore” we follow a young woman named Tiana who struggles with addiction, misses a dead friend and thinks back on what happened and could’ve been. To wit:
“Tiana knew how lucky she was. It hadn’t always been this way; she really did know how lucky she was. There was a short but formative time when all she had wanted was her mother back, and now she had her mother back. She knew how lucky she was.” (Pg 98)
But how lucky is she? Sure, her mom’s back, but when they call feels “worthless and ungrateful” and settles into a blackout of booze and depression, “taking pull after pull after pull without moving, feeling nothing.” If that’s good luck, who needs bad luck? A relationship so fraught that one has to numb themselves into oblivion?
It brings to mind a scene in “Obsulation” where the protagonist tells her mom that in order to keep their relationship alive, the mom doesn’t have to believe her daughter is a woman, but at least has to pretend she does. And that’s a vibe any trans person can relate to, but also one that cisgender readers can look at and be like “oh, that’s how it is,” even if it’s a move born of desperation, out of love and out of fear. Nobody writes sex like her; nobody writes a blackout as well, either.
On the other hand, when Plett writes about love, she does so tenderly, with compassion and often with an erotic charge. The sex scene that’s the climax of her story “Enough Trouble” is powerfully written, giving the story a sense of electricity, and leaves the reader wanting more – but the way the two characters of Ava and Gemma circle around each other, the tender way Gemma makes dinner and the way Ava looks at her lover… It’s great.
I was prepared not to like A Dream of A Woman as much as I did; after Little Fish, I expected a series of short stories to work to Plett’s disadvantage: would she have the room to sketch out key scenes and slowly build a character as recognizable or relatable as Wendy Reimer? Would she be able to take her time and draw you into her Winnipeg (or Portland, Windsor or NYC) and keep you there? And the short answer is yeah, she pulls it off. Not every story is a knockout, but most of the ones here show her fulfilling all the potential she showed in A Safe Girl to Love and at it’s very best, it rises to the same level as Little Fish.
There’s a lot here to take in, and it’s perhaps best taken in bite-sized pieces; I know I read A Dream of a Woman in under a week, and at times it left me feeling emotional and overwhelmed, like it hit me in the gut. It was the rare book that keyed me up, made me want to write fiction of my own. I recently told a friend I’m jealous they get to read it for the first time. I hope some of you take my advice on this one.