“How do we think about our past?” asks Wendy in the opening scene of Little Fish. She is having drinks with a small group of close-knit Winnipeg transwomen, musing darkly on the way that they experience age differently than cis folks. This wonder at how to conceive of the past, time, or a life haunts Casey Plett’s debut novel, which follows her Lambda Literary Award–winning short-story collection A Safe Girl to Love. Plett’s first book gathered telling episodes of transwomen across different geographies, experiences, and ages. Little Fish zooms in on Wendy, burrowing into one place and one cadre of women over the course of one intense month.
The morning after that scene at the bar, Wendy wakes up to news of her grandmother’s death. When she heads to the funeral in a small Mennonite town north of the city, an acquaintance of her grandparents calls to give condolences and, without warning, suggests that Wendy’s grandfather might have also been trans.
If this weren’t enough to send her head swimming, the subsequent weeks deal Wendy blow after blow. Her manager informs her that the gift shop where she works is closing imminently, and she begrudgingly returns to sex work. Her well-meaning dad invests his inheritance in a rickshaw start-up before finding out his siblings are disputing the will. Her roommate informs her of their impending eviction. And undeniably worst of all, her friend Sophie, an anchor to the book’s ragtag crew of women, kills herself.
Yet, somehow, life goes on. Impressive drinking provides a modicum of a coping mechanism for Wendy. Yet drunkenness also provides, in its fogginess, that weird clarity of self-knowledge that is familiar to anyone who has been alone, freezing, phoneless, and far from home in a hostile suburb at three in the morning. In episodes like these, the reader is entrusted with a host of intimate memories, contradictions, and vulnerabilities. In other moments, we are provided achingly accurate depictions of life’s gritty banality — half-watching Netflix, ignored texts, punk houses that have been around forever.
Even at the murky fringes of resignation and sadness, there is a stern, loving power cradling Wendy. The thrust of the book is not really about unravelling the gender of just one grandparent. Rather, Wendy seeks the possibility of some innate connection of care between transwomen — a care that transcends and transforms time, experience, and context. In a shitty, magical, and rapidly changing world, the novel suggests, maybe all we can rely on is each other, no matter how broken or distant.
Dense politics and affective knots emerge throughout the book. Rather than downplaying transness in some effort to normalize or simplify it, Plett centres it. She is unflinching in depicting the constant onslaught of aggression, violence, misgendering, and social barriers faced by women like Wendy. While she acknowledges the absolute uniqueness of individual experience, she also honours a loosely held trans culture, a shared palette of pain and loss, and a collective heroism (though the author herself might be reticent to call it that). For those of us outside this experience, we can only count ourselves lucky to have Plett’s novel, a book that invites us to witness something so important, so complex, and so tender.