Casey Plett’s Little Fish: A Book Review by Erin

Last month we posted a 5 questions interview with Casey Plett, which coincided with the release of her newest book, Little Fish. When we asked her what she missed about southern Manitoba, her response was: “The sunlight. The sunsets. The air. The people. The land. My family, my friends. Everything.”

This is powerfully felt in Plett’s depiction of Winnipeg in winter. There is so much love and light there, in her depiction of our darkest, coldest days. Sidewalks mottled in ice, the frozen river, the piercing wind…she knows this city well.

The central character in Little Fish is Wendy, a transgender woman living in Winnipeg. She has her friends, her job, her dad, her life. But a mysterious phone call from a woman named Anna suddenly makes her think of her family’s past in general, and her Mennonite grandfather in particular, in a whole new light.

Before the novel begins, the author includes two quotes. As I read Little Fish, it was the quote by Lexi Sanfino that kept coming back to me: “I don’t think anyone really knows how they look.” Wendy often tries to picture what she might look like to other people. For example, men are initially thrilled to see her walking by: a tall, attractive woman with flowing black hair. When Wendy is getting ready for the day in the bathroom of her apartment, we see a side-view of her, from her roommates’ perspective. And together we consider what the crowds at The Forks see when they glance at Wendy from behind, as she sits on a bench, gazing at the river.

This book touches on family, faith, and Mennonite culture…but not in the way you might expect. We see how Wendy’s relationship with her father has developed over the years…and we watch as things come to a head with Anna. But mostly, Wendy’s friends are like her family; they nurture and care for one another, they look out for one another…and they experience terror on behalf of one another. Darker themes come to the fore: isolation, suicide, safety, and lack thereof. The writing is bold…unafraid. Some, in this blog’s audience, might even find it shocking.

Let me put it this way: Plett’s not exactly writing for the church crowd. (Not the more conservative church crowd anyway). There’s sex. There’s binge-drinking. But, you know, when I say “she’s not writing for the church crowd” maybe I’m assuming too much or, perhaps, I’m stating the obvious. Because the writing comes from a place of honesty and exploration, of both Wendy’s personal life, and her surroundings, that should be able to reach past some of these barriers.  Perhaps the audience that might find some of this content shocking is precisely the audience that should be reading it. And there’s a beautiful gentleness in the way she portrays Wendy’s experiences both with people, and with the city itself. It’s gritty, intimate, fearless, and full of love.

Because although it contains sex, I don’t think that Little Fish is about sex. I don’t even think it’s about the transgender experience, but it does vividly convey the experience of one transgender woman and, in doing so, Plett’s book, like every good book, has provoked thoughts I hadn’t previously considered. For example, I had never really thought about the fact that when you’re straight and cisgender, your sexuality is assumed, and is not anyone’s business unless you make it so. (This is likely a privilege most cis people don’t even think about.) At one point in the book, Wendy reflects that her body has never been just hers. No part of it has belonged to her alone. Because she is transgender, it appears that her body is up for discussion and investigation with seemingly everyone.

When Wendy reflects on her experience with encountering men on the street when she first transitions, she is surprised to find that she’s unable to stand up for herself; she becomes demure, and her father congratulates her on being hit on, saying “Look at you, you’re attractive!” She finds herself in the midst of this female experience with strangers…and it’s not easy. “She didn’t know how to talk about it.” I find that line so…poignant. (Is that the word I mean?)

There are other difficult aspects to transgender life that I hadn’t known about, prior to reading Little Fish. The first is alluded to in the opening conversation between Wendy and her friends, stating simply that trans people don’t live as long as cis people do, and so in a way, don’t see time quite the same either. I wondered why. I later realized it’s a result of several things (as explored in the book), which I hadn’t known about or thought of before.

However, for cisgender readers, I don’t think you should think of Little Fish as “an education.” I certainly don’t think you should read this book with the goal in mind to “figure out” your transgender friends, family members, or neighbours. I’m not sure we read fiction to be “educated,” nor should we. We read to connect, to relate, to understand. To explore something of ourselves in another person. In other words, we read to be changed. And any reader who is interested in that should definitely read Little Fish.