Trigger warning for discussion of suicide and transphobia.
In many ways, Wendy Reimer lives a marginal life. She has a part-time job at a gift shop that’s closing down. Her friends run the gamut from sex workers to academics. She is transgender and is on the outs with most of her family. She presents as a woman and has had gender-confirmation surgery, but a lot of people still loudly question her gender. It isn’t hard to see, even a few pages into Casey Plett’s Little Fish, that Wendy is starting to lose herself in the middle of all of the things that have a claim on her.
The publisher’s description of Little Fish makes a bigger deal about Wendy learning, early in the book, that her grandfather may have not been a cis-gender, heterosexual man than it actually ends up being. Instead, Little Fish is primarily about Wendy in the weeks after the death of her grandmother. We see Wendy as she looks for love, a livelihood, and answers about her grandfather. We also get a close look at her somewhat tenuous support network of trans women and lesbians in Winnipeg, Canada. These women do their best to hold each other up, but friends can’t always save people from their troubles and all the rejection they face from the rest of “straight” society.
A lot happens in Little Fish, but little of it is pleasant except for the caring relationships Wendy and her friends have with each other. Wendy does a lot of self-destructive things with no idea of how much she is hurting herself. She begins to drink even more than usual and starts having risky sexual encounters with men that could turn violent at any moment. Worst of all (and all of this is pretty bad), is that Wendy seems to have little idea of how close she is to danger for most of the book. I wanted to have a sit down with her so that I could give her a sharp reality check before she does anything permanent to herself. Thankfully, someone eventually gives her that reality check, although they do it in a completely different intention. Perhaps intention doesn’t matter when someone can make something good out of hard words?
Little Fish was nominated for a 2019 Lambda Literary Award for transgender fiction, so I feel that I can recommend this as a portrait of the struggles that some trans women feel. Even though Wendy looks like the woman she is, she still wonders if she is the person she wants to be. She wonders if she made the right choices in her transition. She also thinks a lot about why the lives of transgendered people are so hard and so often end before they should because of suicide or violence. This is a hard read. I feel emotionally wrung out after reading it. That said, readers who are curious about the inner lives of transgender people will find plenty to ponder in Little Fish. I think this book has the potential to open eyes (and hearts) for readers who don’t know how lost people can feel when they don’t seem to fit in the world, in society, or in their bodies, all of the time.
Notes for bibliotherapeutic use: Recommend to readers who want or need to know more about the perspective and lives of transgendered people.