Not as Scary As I Hoped, but Cute Lesbians?: A Review of THE DARK BENEATH THE ICE by Amelinda Bérubé

This review is just in time before the spooky Halloween fall season turns irrevocably into the winter holiday season. The Dark Beneath the Ice by Amelinda Bérubé is a kind of paranormal queer horror YA novel by this Ottawa-based debut author. It’s definitely the kind of book meant to be read on a long dark October or November night.

The Dark Beneath the Ice was a bit of a mixed bag for me. Some of it worked, some of it didn’t. Let’s talk about one of the good things first! This book is set in Ottawa, which I found quite different and refreshing. I don’t know if I’ve ever read a book set in the Canadian capital! Having never visited Ottawa, it was fun to get a chance to experience a novel set there. In particular, the Ottawa river that is such a prominent feature of the city plays a not too insignificant role in The Dark Beneath the Ice (hence the ice). The strong presence of the river gave the book quite a particular feeling of place, but one that’s probably different than what you might think about Ottawa, which I appreciate.

You’re probably wondering what this is all about with the river. Let me start at the beginning: Marianne is a teenager who’s having a rough time. Her parents have recently separated and she just quit doing high-level ballet, for reasons Bérubé slowly reveals. But that’s not even the worst of it. Lately Marianne has started to feel like she can’t trust her own mind. She’s losing time, “waking up” in the middle of her day with no recollection of how the time has passed. She’s having nightmares involving a dark creepy river covered in ice that are increasingly terrifying. She’s being faced with evidence that she’s done things that don’t seem like her at all.

Are you scared yet?? This all sounds like a good psychological horror. I think it might be scary for some people. For me, the scariness factor was a bit disappointing unfortunately. I was hoping it would be as scary as the synopsis promised it would be, but I wasn’t scared at all! Am I tougher than I thought after all? I’m not sure. All I know is I wanted this book to give me that deliciously creeped out Halloween feeling and it did not. Maybe it did / will for you? Let me know!

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I think Bérubé was going for some ambiguity about whether the haunting was real or just in Marianne’s head. This is the most interesting kind of haunted story to me, and I don’t mind and I think might even prefer if it’s never clear whether the supernatural element is “real” or not. (Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House is a great example of this. It’s also one of my all-time favourite scary (queer) books). However, The Dark Beneath the Ice it didn’t succeed at this ambiguity at all for me.

The Dark Beneath the Ice also felt like one of those books where the main character doesn’t take much action and the aimless plot just kind of happens to her. I wanted Marianne to be more take charge about this crazy scary thing taking over her life! I also wished the plot was less rambly.

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Amelinda Bérubé / image via twitter

But … (here’s the final compliment sandwich part of this review) there’s cute lesbian romance side plot! Marianne connects early on in the book with Rhiannon, aka Ron (haha, what’s more high school baby dyke than giving yourself a boy’s name as a nickname, eh?). It’s not a spoiler to say lesbian feelings are soon had! Ron is a cool goth girl who also used to play rugby (and still remembers how to tackle someone). She also has a mom who’s a psychic; those skills come in quite handy with the mysterious haunting and all. I’d be lying if I didn’t say that Ron was definitely my favourite character.

I can see The Dark Beneath the Ice appealing to teens more than it did to me. They are, after all, the intended audience for this YA book. Check it out—whether you’re a teen or an adult—and let me know what you thought!

Posted in Canadian, Fiction, Lesbian, Queer, Young Adult | 1 Comment

Delicious Italian Food and a Lack of Cohesion: A Review of Monica Meneghetti’s WHAT THE MOUTH WANTS

What the Mouth Wants by Monica Meneghetti is, unfortunately, one of those books that just wasn’t for me. But let me try to talk about it a bit, in a way that will hopefully tell you whether it might be the book for you! First, check out that beautiful cover!

Meneghetti’s book—subtitled “a memoir of food, love, and belonging”—is a memoir told in short, vignette-like passages. Sometimes the passages are quick short, like prose poems. Other times they are more straight-forward recounting of past experiences, albeit occasionally written in the immediacy of present tense. Meneghetti writes about coming out as bisexual in a small town years before gay rights movements became mainstream, her mother’s death from breast cancer when Meneghetti was a teenager, complicated family dinners that are sometimes terrible, polyamory, her abusive dad, and food, food, food.

The memoir is strongly infused with Meneghetti’s traditional Italian-Catholic upbringing, whether she’s talking about the pasta her mother makes or the way the patriarchy rooted in religion rears its head in her family. I imagine that for readers with backgrounds similar to Meneghetti’s, this aspect of the book will have a lot of pull. There are also undoubtedly parts of the particular Italian-Catholicness of this book that I couldn’t fully appreciate. (Although the descriptions of delicious food like pasta, cheese, sausage, gelato, and more rang very true to this food-loving non-Italian).

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Monica Meneghetti / image via cbc.ca

What the Mouth Wants is organized, appropriately, like an Italian meal: first “antipasti,” then “primi,” “secondi e contorni,” and finally “frutti e formaggi.” I love the idea of weaving the theme of Italian food into the very structure of the book. But I didn’t love the result. Most of all, the structure just didn’t have any meaning for me when I was reading. I couldn’t piece together why certain pieces of writing were placed in certain sections. It wasn’t based on length of the writing, theme, chronology, or any reason that I could ascertain. If anyone else has read this book and has insight on the organization of the writing, I would love to hear your thoughts!

I love a good non-chronological memoir (Lydia Yuknavitch’s incredible bisexual memoir Chronology of Water comes to mind). But What the Mouth Wants felt less like a deliberately structured non-chronological memoir and more a disorganized manuscript of writing that didn’t have enough care put into its structure as a book. It’s not to say that Meneghetti’s writing isn’t sometimes very interesting on the sentence or passage level; it is, although it is also lacklustre at other times. But for me the lack of cohesion and meaningful structure overwhelmed the value that I found in a few of the individual pieces. If cohesion and organization aren’t fussy issues for you like they are for me, you may feel differently!

The other issue I had with What the Mouth Wants is that I just never felt like the characters came alive. I wanted to feel like I knew them, and I didn’t. This weakens the emotional resonance of the events of Menegehtti’s life that she recounts. Readers need to understand and be familiar with the people in the books they’re experiencing—whether those people are real in a memoir or fictional characters in a novel.

Overall, for me there were just too many areas of this memoir that were lacking; the strengths didn’t make up for the weaknesses. For a different perspective, check out this review in the Edmonton Journal. Again, I’d be very happy to hear about other readers’ experiences with What the Mouth Wants. Please share in the comments!

Posted in Alberta, Bisexual, Canadian, memoir, Poetry, Queer | 3 Comments

“My bindi tells me where I’m from / my bindi reminds me of my mom”: A Review of Vivek Shraya’s Gender-Diverse Picture Book THE BOY & THE BINDI

Hey guess what! This my very first review of a picture book on Casey the Canadian Lesbrarian. The book, fully deserving of this honour, is The Boy & the Bindi written by Vivek Shraya and illustrated by Rajni Perera. You might know Vivek Shraya as an artist jill-of-all-trades. I’ve reviewed her poetry book even this page is white and talked about her novel She of the Mountains as one of the great Canadian bisexual books you have to read. (I’ve also got the audiobook of her latest non-fiction book, I’m Afraid of Men, queued up next on my audiobook app). You might also know her as a musician and artist in various other visual mediums. Since she published The Boy & the Bindi in 2016, she can also add picture book author to her long list of artistic ccomplishments.

The Boy & the Bindi is about, well, a boy and his fascination with his Ammi’s (mom) bindi. It’s a sweet story about a gender non-conforming kid who is curious about Ammi’s bindi. He asks “Ammi, why do you wear that dot? What’s so special about that spot?” Readers can learn along with the little kid that it’s called a bindi. But more importantly, we hear about what its deeper meaning is. The boy’s Ammi explains:

My bindi tells me where I’m from.

My bindi reminds me of my mom

And when she gave me my first one.

In this way, Shraya explains how the bindi is a specifically feminine cultural tradition for South Asian women, one that links mothers and daughters to each other. Where, then, does the little boy in this story fit? Easily. When he asks his Ammi for a bindi of his own, she doesn’t hesitate. She reaches into her drawer and says “Ta-da! This one is yours!”

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Just like for his Ammi, the boy finds that the bindi is much more than a pretty adornment on his forehead: “As soon as it’s on, I feel so calm / Like all the noise around is gone.” Even under the scrutiny of white kids at school who don’t know what the bindi is, he derives strength and peace from imagining the bindi turning into a star, his forehead turning into the sky, and his whole being feeling light and free. The bindi helps too when feeling “small like a dot / And sometimes ugly like a blot.”

The Boy & the Bindi clearly shows Shraya’s finesse with music and poetry, with its rhythmic rhyming lines very much like a song or poem. She also uses repetition for stylistic effect beautifully. The musicality of the words is matched by the gorgeous lush colours of Rajni Perera’s painted illustrations. The richness of the brown boy and mother’s skin tones is especially striking. I also loved the bright colours in the boy’s imaginative scenes: the blue-purple night sky the boy flies away to and the green jungle growing around him and his Ammi.

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When you’ve finished reading the book (for the first time), definitely check out the multiple resources and different ways to experience the book on Vivek Shraya’s website. There’s an audio recording of the author herself reading the book with soothing music playing in the background. There’s a video of Catherine Hernandez (whose name you might recognize as the author of Scarborough, a debut novel I reviewed last year) doing an amazing storytime (complete with songs before and after) featuring The Boy & the Bindi. If you’re a teacher or a librarian, you’ll also be interested to know that there’s a teacher’s guide resource available for free there in PDF form. It’s developed by educators Robin Phillips and Meghan Park. It’s got stuff like learning outcomes, activities for before and after reading, and discussion questions.

Stay tuned for more picture book reviews on Casey the Canadian Lesbrarian! Next I’d like to read Kai Cheng Thom’s From the Stars in the Sky to the Fish in the Sea. In the meantime, go forth and share The Boy & the Bindi with the kids (and, hey, adults!) in your life.

Posted in Canadian, Fiction, Kids, Queer, South Asian, Trans, Trans Feminine, Transgender | 2 Comments

A Dark and Humorous Look at the Life of a Lesbian Stay-at-Home Mom: A Review of Ann-Marie MacDonald’s ADULT ONSET

If you were expecting Ann-Marie MacDonald’s third novel Adult Onset (published in 2014) to be similar in scope and drama to her first two sweeping, epic historical novels — including the massively popular Oprah Book Club pick Fall on Your Knees (my review here) — you might be disappointed, at least initially. I think reading this novel with those expectations, however, would do a disservice to MacDonald, who is after all attempting to write a different kind of book. Moreover, I think if you scratch beneath the surface of this week-in-the-life-of-a-stay-at-home-lesbian mom, you’ll find that despite its differences Adult Onset shares a lot with MacDonald’s previous novels.

I, for one, loved this novel. I thought it was fascinating and riveting. I listened to the audiobook, and there were many times when I could barely bring myself to take out my headphones and pause the story. Which is probably not something you’d predict about this type of book set and taking place over the course in a regular week in the life of a married middle class lesbian mom. But there’s also something to be said about the urgency and immediacy of a piece of fiction set in such a short time frame. Especially for the context of this book, in which the weight of motherhood and domesticity are claustrophobically suffocating and swallowing the main character, the pressing atmosphere of the condensed time felt very appropriate.

The lesbian mom in question here is Mary Rose, aka MR, aka Mister. (I love how the completely different nickname comes from this unusual place, and how it represents MR trying to move away from the heightened femininity of her given name to what she calls “a calculated androgyny”). I said the book takes place during a week in her life, which is in the Toronto neighbourhood The Annex. This is true, but it also skips back a bit occasionally to the child- and young adulthood of MR, sometimes inside her own head and memories, and sometimes reaching outside what she could possibly know and remember about her own young life. There are also excerpts from MR’s autobiographical YA series.

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Ann-Marie MacDonald / image by Guntar Kravis, via annmariemacdonald.com

Adult Onset is a psychologically rich and complex novel. Barely suppressed underneath the mundane details of MR’s days caring for her toddler Maggie and her Kindergartner Matthew — without her wife Hilary, who is away for work — is a surging sea. This sea is made up of so many things: the myriad stresses of motherhood; struggling to keep up with domestic tasks; MR’s longstanding problem with anger; maintaining a relationship with her mother, who appears to be in the early stages of dementia; supporting her brother who is going through a break-up and dealing with anxiety; remembered trauma of childhood physical illness and familial homophobia; the challenges of sustaining her relationship with Hilary long-distance; and the pressure for MR to write the third book in her immensely popular YA series. It’s A LOT.

The result is an often painfully real book, at times not unlike the last book I reviewed, Jane Eaton Hamilton’s Weekend. Both novels also have the effect of making you feel less alone amidst all the shit of life you are wading through. But one key difference is that MacDonald’s book has a lot of humour in it, albeit often dark humour (my personal favourite kind). It had me laughing about the same amount as it had me cringing. One of my favourite lines from the book that had me laughing out loud was “Mary Rose having approached heterosexuality rather like math: she worked at it until she achieved a C then felt justified in dropping it.”

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As I said earlier, I listened to the audiobook version of Adult Onset. I would highly recommend experiencing the book this way, even if you don’t normally do audiobooks! Ann-Marie MacDonald herself narrates it, and it is incredible. Often author-narrated audiobooks aren’t very good, because even though an author has written the book, it doesn’t mean they’re good at performing it. An audiobook is nothing less than a performance by a voice actor, after all. But MacDonald is also a trained and accomplished actress, in addition to a gifted author. She is absolutely fabulous narrating this story. She has a wonderful expressive voice, really embodying MR’s state of mind.

Her narration added a lot of value for me. There were certain passages I think I might have interpreted differently or found less interesting had I read the print book. One sentence in particular stands out in my memory. MR is falling into a sleep-deprived angry spiral about her relationship with Hilary, inside her own head, and she somehow gets onto the topic of how Hilary identifies, queer wise. She thinks, “Hilary, of course, refused to identify specifically as anything, which was just so typical of a bisexual.” (This is a paraphrase, as I didn’t write down the exact sentence–it was that memorable that I still remember it now, weeks after finishing the book).

MR’s voice is so infused with, well, her crazed mental state. The pitch of MacDonald’s voice goes higher and higher and the words are strung together closer and closer as the sentence nears its end until her voice is shrill. It sounded just like the kind of silly, petty thing you might think about your partner while mad at them for, oh, say, being away from home and leaving you alone to parent your two children under five. Acted out in MacDonald’s voice, I found this line very funny. In print, I’m not sure I wouldn’t have been uneasy about this jab at bisexuals.

MacDonald also did great unique voices and accents for different characters: the rural Cape Breton twang of MR’s elderly parents was especially great. I will also confess now I’ve always had kind of a crush on Ann-Marie MacDonald (even though she’s old enough to be my mom) and something about the way she did MR’s brother’s voice was so sexy to me I couldn’t handle it.

In short: I loved Adult Onset. Read it. In particular, listen to the audiobook.

Posted in ann-marie macdonald, Canadian, Fiction, Lesbian, Queer, Toronto | 2 Comments

Viscerally Real Queers, Dyke Processing, Kink, and Disability in Jane Eaton Hamilton’s novel WEEKEND

Oof. You know when a book feels almost too real? That was my experience with Jane Eaton Hamilton’s novel Weekend. I don’t know if I’ve read a novel about queer relationships that felt so viscerally authentic, ever. This is a testament to Hamilton’s sheer writing talent, of course, as well as technical finesse in the careful character and relationship development throughout. But Weekend is also a great example of a book that speaks to the power of #ownvoices writing.

There’s just no way an outsider who didn’t have deep, personal experiences with the intricacies of gender and sexual identities, kink, and disability the book is representing could ever write something that felt this real and complex. The book is not conforming to the “we’re-the-same-as-everybody-else” theory of queerness and it’s certainly not concerned with portraying queer people in a flattering light. What it does do is unflinchingly reveal us at our worst in some ways that all humans can be in relationships with each other and at our best in some ways that are very specific to the queer crip politics of the novel.

Weekend is, according to this review in The Vancouver Sun, a take on Raymod Carver’s “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love.” I admittedly haven’t read Carver, but judging from its description as a “grim mediation on love,” that sounds just about right.

Hamilton’s novel is a snapshot of two queer couples spending the weekend in side by side cabins in that specifically Ontario construct of what Ontarians call “cottage country.” The two halves of each couple who own the property, Logan and Elliot, are—unsurprisingly—long ago exes, each there with their current partner. Logan’s partner is 10 years their senior, a woman named Ajax who has come out from BC to spend quality couple time. Ajax and Logan are still in what you might call “the honeymoon phase,” which means they’re having constant amazing sex but still don’t know important things about one another. Joe and Elliot are a long-term couple who have just had a baby together and are struggling not only with the daily exhaustion and effort of caring for a newborn but also deep buried relationship troubles.

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Jane Eaton Hamilton / image via vancouversun.com

There’s a lot to revel in in Weekend, just purely from a representation angle. When was the last time you read a queer novel about people in middle age, let alone a novel that has extended sex scenes featuring queer people in their 40s and 50s? Older queers getting it on feels revolutionary in and of itself, but Hamilton also features a character who is disabled and black (Ajax has a heart condition and grew up in the Bahamas), a trans masculine character who uses they pronouns (Logan), a masculine-presenting polyamorous character who uses she pronouns (Elliot), and a kinky couple (Logan and Ajax). None of this feels forced or for the sake of diversity itself, but simply a portrayal of some real people with various intersecting identities.

As you’re probably guessing, this is a highly character and relationship driven novel. You know at the beginning that shit of many kinds is going to hit the fan for both couples. Hamilton takes you there slowly while letting you get to know all the characters, their dynamics, and histories. The only other work I can think of that has so much authentic dyke processing in it is Alison Bechdel’s Dykes to Watch Out For. Logan, Ajax, Joe, and Elliot talk about their gender and sexual identities (I found Ajax’s ruminations about her lesbian identity in the face of Logan’s in-flux gender identity particularly fascinating), sex, feelings, their exes, illness, and relationship practicalities. They talk, and talk, and talk.

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Another gorgeous cover by Arsenal Pulp Press–can you see how the topography looks like a body?

Ajax was the most interesting character for me, as she’s negotiating multiple marginalized identities that she doesn’t share with her Logan: she’s disabled and black, as I already mentioned, and also grew up poor/working class and has lived an adult life living mostly as a kind of starving artist. She has to decide how much and what and when to tell Logan, especially because their relationship is new. At one point when Logan stumbles upon a tangle of race and class assumptions they hold based on their perceptions about the Bahamas, Ajax has to outright tell them: “There is some awful something happening right now, right here, that I am just going to cross out because I don’t want to get into it with you. Not this weekend. Can we defer?” She thinks later: “Quintessentially, she and Logan had almost nothing in common. Which had essentially no bearing on love.” As a side note: I think I also liked Ajax the most because I deeply identified with her, a Vancouverite, thinking this about Lake Ontario: “Ajax keeping her lips pressed tight about the lake’s basic wrongness (pretending it was an ocean).”

Weekend is a deeply thought-provoking novel. It doesn’t shy away from the sometimes harsh realities of the characters’ lives in the same way it exposes unflinchingly but compassionately their sometimes massive imperfections. It’s not the kind of book about relationships that will “make you believe in love.” But it will, I think, make many readers feel less alone and affect many readers greatly, on both emotional and intellectual levels. Weekend is perhaps the queer book you didn’t know you needed so much.

Posted in BDSM, Black, Butch, Canadian, Caribbean, disability, Fiction, Lesbian, Non Binary, Queer, Trans, Trans Masculine, Transgender | 3 Comments

“You’s napêw iskwewisehot, m’boy, Two-Spirit”: A Review of Joshua Whitehead’s Debut Novel JONNY APPLESEED

What a damn fine book Jonny Appleseed is. That’s my eight-word review. Here are some more words:

When I finished reading this debut novel by Joshua Whitehead (an Oji-Cree/nehiyaw, Two-Spirit/Indigiqueer member of the Peguis First Nation [Treaty 1]), I remember thinking about first person narratives. I haven’t been reading a lot of them, and some of the ones I have read in the last year have grated on my nerves a little. I think novel-length stories told from an “I” are very hard to pull off. It’s hard to successfully represent an authentic-seeming individual’s voice and have a narrative that makes sense in terms of the information that limited perspective has for the plot. This is especially true in my experience when an author also chooses to tell the story in present tense. Done well, I am often incredibly moved by first-person narratives and remark on the artistry of representing the world from a particular person’s perspective. Not done well (which seems like the case more of the time, perhaps attesting to the difficulty of getting the voice right), I find them tough to get through or even unbearable.

Jonny Appleseed is the most poignant reminder I’ve had in a while about how powerful and effecting a first person narrative can be. Jonny, the Two-Spirit main character, carries the book with his raw, hilarious, and insightful voice. In a character- and relationship-driven novel devoid of a lot of what is conventionally considered “plot” (this is not a bad thing in my mind), the voice of Jonny is what holds the story and the reader along for the ride. Jonny Appleseed is one of those seemingly infinitely quotable books I found myself frequently underlining. Jonny has so much to say and you just want to share his words.

Some of my favourite quotes from Jonny were:

“Humility is just a humiliation you loved so much it transformed.”

“I texted him back with a simple ‘No.’ I made an emphasis to punctuate my text. In the digital universe, a punctuated sentence is as powerful a slap as slamming down the landline.”

“Funny how an NDN ‘love you’ sounds more like ‘I’m in pain with you.’”

“But I just laughed and I think he got mad—I wish he knew that when an NDN laughs, it’s because they’re applying a fresh layer of medicine on an open wound.”

“I never had to tell him, that was how I knew I love him—I never had to tell him.”

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Joshua Whitehead / image via talonbooks.com

The story technically takes place over a week, but in reality it spans a much larger time period as it meanders through Jonny’s memories. It’s a non-linear book that feels very much like the way a mind goes to and fro from the past to the present and from topic to topic. Jonny thinks about his kokum, mom, his great first love Tias, coming out, and growing up. In the present Jonny is preparing to go back to the rez for his mom’s boyfriend’s funeral, hence the predominance of the past in his mind. He’s been living in Winnipeg, living his urban “NDN glitter princess” and scraping by by doing cyber-sex work. Now he’s set to go back to where he grew up, a prospect that is complicated emotionally and practically for him, not least of which is how difficult it’s going to be to scrounge up the funds to pay for a ride. He never even liked his mom’s boyfriend anyway.

A lot of the novel focuses on the women in Jonny’s life and the impact they’ve had on him. One particularly memorable story is about his aunt, and how she reacts to a black bear they find in her backyard, eating out of her garbage can. Jonny recalls:

She was fearless, that woman; she walked outside barefoot and marched right up to that bear and struck him on the nose with her broom, once, twice, bam. And then that great bear stood up on its hind legs, its claws the length of scissors, and grunted; but my aunt, tough as nails, smacked that bear again on its head and yelled at the top of her voice, ‘Git! G’wan you, out, out, git!’ The bear stared at her quizzically for a few seconds, then lowered himself and jogged back into the bush. My aunt came back inside, her feet red as the beans she cooked in her chili, and dusted herself off as if it were nothing.

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He also thinks often of his kokum (grandmother). One lovely story is her reaction when he nervously comes out to her on the phone. Through his crying and hiccupping, she tells him “You done, m’boy, or what? … Heck, like I didn’t even know, Jonny. Why you think I gave you them earrings last year? … your kokum old but she ain’t dull. You’s napêw iskwewisehot, m’boy, Two-Spirit.”

These are just some snapshots of this book that I loved. It was one of those reads that sucked me in right from the first page and didn’t let go. Joshua Whitehead writes elegantly and exactingly about Jonny’s state of mind and his journey, to moving and profound effect. Jonny Appleseed is funny, on-point, and heart-breaking, often all at the same time. Don’t believe me? Did you know it was on the 2018 Giller Longlist and a finalist for the GG’s Literary Award for English-language Fiction? Now get reading Jonny Appleseed! Find it from the publisher Arsenal Pulp Press here.

Posted in Fiction, Gay, Indigenous, Queer, Rural, Sex Work | 2 Comments

A Trans Novel to Break You, and Build You Back Up: A Review of Casey Plett’s LITTLE FISH

Look at the opening of Casey Plett’s debut novel Little Fish, and how it unabashedly centres trans women talking to each other about trans stuff:

The night before her Oma died, Wendy was in a booth at the bar with Lila, Raina, and Sophie. It was eleven p.m., and they were all tipsy. Sophie was saying, “Age is completely different for trans people. The way we talk about age is not how cis people talk about age.”

“You mean that thing,” said Wendy, “where our age is also how long we’ve been out or on hormones or whatever?”

“Or do you mean that thing,” said Lila, “where we don’t age as much. Because we die sooner.”

“Both those things, yes!” Sophie said, “But there’s more! There’s much more.”

Yes, there is, much, much more. But from the very beginning, Plett shows us that this novel is going to dive deep into relationships between trans women, and it’s not going to shy away from the darkness and the complexities. It also insists, with its incisive insider voice, that this is not a trans book written with a cis audience in mind.

Little Fish is about a 30-year-old trans woman named Wendy. Wendy lives in Winnipeg. It’s a slice-of-life novel that follows Wendy’s life for a few (significantly, Winnipeg WINTER) months amidst some monumental events in her life. Plett says in a Q&A with Arsenal Pulp Press that “given the rapid-fire events Wendy deals with in Little Fish, it seemed right to me to also set the book during that season, when life in some way has that tinge of not being part of the world.” I’ve never personally experienced Winterpeg, but I feel like reading this book might be as close to the real experience as you’re gonna get.

The narrative begins with Wendy’s Oma’s death, recounting just what Wendy was doing before, during, and just after her grandmother died in that way that we always look back on the seemingly mundane events in our lives retrospectively after something major has happened to disrupt the normalcy. It’s fitting that we are introduced both to Wendy’s Oma and her tight-knit group of friends in the novel’s open, because this is a book about family: both Wendy’s Mennonite family of birth and her chosen family of trans women peers.

The crux of the novel’s plot is Wendy discovering her traditional Mennonite farmer grandfather might have also been trans—something she discovers in a chance phone call from a family friend when she’s back at her Oma’s house after the funeral. It’s a thread in the plot that falls and gets picked back up numerous times, as Wendy assesses how importance and relevant this information may even be, given that her Opa passed away years ago and that there are a lot of other pressing issues happening in her life. In this way, Little Fish is just as much about other issues like alcoholism, sex work, friendship, suicide, and being poor as it is about searching for your trans and queer history within your family and culture.

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Casey Plett, photo via quillandquire.com

Little Fish is a hard-hitting, beautiful, and thought-provoking novel. It refuses to simplify any of the complex, thorny issues it is dealing with; no one is a saint, no one is a villain. It refuses to ignore the darkness in the lives of Wendy and her friends, but it also refuses to downplay the warm-heartedness, love, and community at the heart of their relationships with each other. Fellow trans woman writer Zoey Leigh Peterson (author of Next Year For Sure, reviewed here) says it perfectly in her back cover blurb:

There is a dark place most novels don’t touch. If you’ve ever been there, maybe you know how exhilarating it can be to read a book like this, a book that captures the darkness so honestly, so accurately, that you can finally begin to let it go. Fearless and messy and oozing with love, Little Fish is a devastating book that I don’t ever want to be without.

Honestly, it’s hard for me to even think about Little Fish and write this review without crying, both for how heartbreaking and dark it is, but also how human and real and full of love and hope it is. Near the end of the story, Plett writes: “However easily she might have abandoned or ruined her prospects, Wendy still did believe she would have love.”

Speaking of human and real and full of love: take Wendy and her dad Ben’s complicated relationship. Ben obviously fiercely loves and supports his daughter, and there are many very real, touching scenes of father-daughter hang-outs in the novel. Like when Wendy recounts her dad telling her it’s okay to drop out of university after a terrible first year: “Look, you don’t need to piss yourself into debt to be miserable … You can do that for free.” You can see there that Ben is a wonderful voice of humour in the book. But there’s also the ways that poverty and mental health have resulted in Ben being an absent father and the way that their drinking get-togethers are clearly part of Wendy’s alcohol abuse.

Ben is just one example of Plett’s amazing, complex, authentic characterization; I love how she isn’t afraid to make her characters messy. As I also wrote in my review of her first book, A Safe Girl to Love (a collection of short stories), Plett just seems to get people, a lot of different people. It’s an keen insightfulness on her part to be sure, but it’s also a kind of fiercely honest generosity that sees people in all their fucked-up complicated glory.

One of the ways this quality really emerges in Little Fish is the way Plett deals with the character of Anna, the Mennonite family friend who initially tells Wendy that her grandfather was “like her.” Throughout the novel, Wendy is trying to connect with Anna over the phone, attempting to get little pieces of who her grandfather was and to find out what Anna really meant with this monumental revelation. At the same time, because of the Mennonite community’s transphobia, Wendy is trying to hide who she truly is and how she fits into her family tree.

Eventually the quest to find out more about her Opa leads Wendy to visit Anna in person. This final culmination, where Anna, who we have up until this point thought of as an elderly traditional Mennonite woman, is revealed to be absolutely NOT what you thought she was. I don’t want to spoil anything, but WOW. I finished the book months ago now, and I’m still thinking about how her character made me think differently than I ever have before about queer history and religion and the choices we make to be ourselves.

little fish casey plett

Sybil Lamb’s art on this cover is phenomenal, right?

ALSO: have I mentioned how talented Plett is at dialogue. I can only DREAM about writing dialogue scenes like hers, where I always marvel at how her characters sound like real people in such a deceptively simple way. Take this exchange between Wendy and one her friends Lila:

 “Oh—right. Ernie. Haven’t heard from him yet.”

“Bummer, girl.”

“Yeah. Well. Thanks for asking.”

They were silent for a second, then Lila offered:

“There’ll always be more d.”

“Ain’t that the truth.”

And then there are pieces of Wendy’s inner dialogue that are so real and hard and beautiful, like a punch to the guts:

And she learned right then: you always had to be on your guard. It didn’t matter how often you passed, it could always be taken away. Always. She’d never be little, she’d never be fish. It could always be taken away.

Most days, Wendy felt that eight years after transition, she had made her peace with trans stuff. Whatever she hadn’t made peace with, she’d made peace with the fact there’d never be peace, so to speak.

I haven’t even got to talk about Wendy’s amazing, authentic friends: Sophie, her fellow Mennonite who’s like a sister to Wendy; Lila, a Métis woman with a sharp tongue and quick wit; and Raina, a sweet, maternal Puerto Rican dyke who calls Wendy “Wendy-burger.” You’ll just have to read the book and get to know and love them like I did, okay? I also haven’t gotten into the sapphic relationships in this book, especially the really special one Wendy has with an out-of-towner Aileen, a fellow trans women. But look forward to that, okay?

Little Fish is unlike anything else we’ve ever seen in Can Lit, in all the wonderful and heartbreaking ways that I’ve described; but at the same time it’s so authentic and real and of a specific piece of this place currently known as Canada that it’s impossible for it not to be familiar. It’s books like this that show where Can Lit should be going. (By the way, Wendy slyly harkens to the likes Miriam Toews and Heather O’Neill in some of her observations, which is fun Can Lit touch).

All this to say: make sure you read Casey Plett’s novel Little Fish. It will break you, and build you back up. In the words of a fellow lover of this book, Tess, on Twitter: “It’s so good, and so hard. And so good.”

Content warnings: suicide, violence against sex workers, transmisogynist verbal, sexual, and physical assault

Posted in Bisexual, Canadian, Casey Plett, Fiction, latina, Lesbian, Queer, Trans, Trans Feminine, Transgender | 1 Comment