A Review of Casey Plett's Little Fish
Review by Dana Hansen
In one of the most guileless character portrayals in my recent memory as a reader, Casey Plett’s thirty-year-old Little Fish protagonist, Wendy Reimer, is a tangle of honest, messy contradictions. A self-described “goon” who parties hard and maintains the outward appearance of resilience and ferocity, particularly as concerns the care and defense of her friends, Wendy, like everyone, is looking for love and comfort in her life:
Sometimes Wendy liked to imagine herself in a red dress on a grassy hill in the summer, and she liked to imagine arms both rough and soft surrounding her and lips kissing her hair. She liked to think of wind blowing. She liked to think of him as about her height because even in her dreams, she couldn’t conceive of him as taller. She liked to imagine being at home and him doing things for her. She would sit in the kitchen while he cooked and he would make her laugh and show her movies and she would drink in the bed, drink on the couch, loving him, waking up mornings to pills and coffee he would put beside her bed.
Wendy's desire, however, for the kind of life she imagines is complicated in ways inconceivable to many. As a trans woman living in the same Winnipeg neighbourhood since birth, and struggling with alcoholism, precarious employment, suicide, discrimination, and violence, her life “feels like a blank, gauzy haze where every direction is just the same thing.” At every turn, Wendy encounters ignorance and aggression from men shouting at her and groping her. “Are you a fuckin’ man?” is regularly hurled at her as she walks down the street, and for her own survival she has had to learn how to talk or behave in a way that de-escalates their anger at her existence. Heartbreakingly, Wendy admits, “In every section of the city…[she] had a memory of someone who had treated her body with the casualness they would only treat their own.”
When her retail job is on the line, she turns not for the first time to sex work. Plett presents this decision of Wendy’s as an unsentimental reality for some trans women, but Wendy confesses that it’s harder for her to do the work the second time around. “I think sex work is work like anything else,” she says, “but there isn’t agency the way the smiley ones say there is.” Should she stop doing tricks? Should she try to find another retail position? Should she quit drinking? Should she go back to school? How can she be happy? Who will truly love her for who she is? Wendy is confronted by so many questions, and so much uncertainty. She feels at once grateful for the things she has, and powerless to control the direction her life is taking. She is plagued by a fatalism that denies the reader any lasting sense that Wendy will be okay: "She wasn’t fucking stupid. She was a pissy, alcoholic tranny hooker, for better and for worse, and probably always would be. She would die too soon or late in life, depending on your point of view. She would probably die alone."
Framing Wendy’s story in Little Fish is a family mystery. When the novel opens, Wendy’s Mennonite grandmother has died, and a family friend reveals that her deceased grandfather Henry may have himself been transgender. Plett’s decision to juxtapose Henry’s story to Wendy’s – as Wendy attempts to understand her grandfather’s choice not to come out or transition, but to isolate himself and turn instead to his faith for comfort – adds a powerful if inconclusive dimension to the novel that opens up questions pertaining to religion, community, and self-knowing.
Little Fish is a story about experience specific to one person – experience to be listened to and honoured – but connecting with Wendy, which is inevitable, does not depend on being able to relate to her experience. Plett has written a book for trans people, but her affecting, beautiful, generous writing welcomes us all to the page.