Katya Apekina, The Deeper the Water the Uglier the Fish, Two Dollar Radio, 2018. $16.99
Long before receiving my copy of Katya Apekina’s novel The Deeper the Water the Uglier the Fish, I was aware of the buzz surrounding it. Several respected outlets had published rave reviews. Social media was in love. I was excited to finally have my copy, and I can honestly say that the novel lives up to the praise. What’s more impressive is that this is Apekina’s debut novel. It’s a heart-wrenching journey through darkness and dysfunction that spans decades, employing frequent shifts in narration to move the story forward. An ambitious undertaking. It is an exploration of the great ripple effect of mental illness and instability. At its core it is the story of two sisters desperately trying to connect with their parents through radically different means. We are introduced to them in the wake of their mother’s attempted suicide. She’s been institutionalized, and the girls have been uprooted from Louisiana to New York City to live with their absentee father, famed novelist Dennis Lomack, a past-his-prime writer of profound misogyny—who found literary fame, mind you, writing about his experience as a freedom fighter during the Civil Rights movement.
Mae and Edie, our sisters, are the main storytellers throughout. They perceive the same events through very different filters, projecting those perceptions onto the page in different ways, which is how Apekina gradually ups the intensity and complexity of this world. Mae is the younger of the two sisters—fourteen years old. She desperately wants to connect with her father. Edie, age sixteen, rages against Dennis with an angst made all the more intense by the presence of Dennis’s part-time lovers. Edie detests him, wanting only to return to Louisiana to reunite with her mother. The backstory of Dennis and the girls’ mother, Marianne, unfolds alongside the main narrative. Marianne is a mentally ill poet, much younger than Dennis, and the daughter of a close friend from his activist days. The details of Marianne and Dennis’s relationship come forth in disturbing power. We know their relationship was doomed from the beginning. How it got to that point is hard for the reader to turn away from.
The novel moves smoothly, transitioning between first-person accounts, epistolary correspondence, medical reports, book reviews, etc. Each voice augments our understanding of the dysfunction. As the sisters attempt to settle into their new lives, Mae embraces her father while Edie begins plotting her escape. Also present is Dennis’s sister Rose (his support system) and Amanda, a graduate student obsessed with Dennis and detested by both Edie and Mae. As Edie wallows in contemplative misery, Mae becomes obsessed with her father’s novels, devouring the sexually graphic material in which her mother is clearly the object. Edie makes a run for Louisiana while Mae stays. Dennis becomes detached, which is intensified by the nearing deadline for a novel he has not written. Mae’s desperation to connect grows until she attempts to replace her mother as Dennis’s muse, throwing herself into the role and fueling Dennis’s literary productivity. As the novel spirals forward, the familial roles become even more twisted.
Apekina’s debut is ambitious and impressive. The prose is crisp, oftentimes stunning, and not without metaphor. Each voice has its idiosyncracies, though some tertiary ones mostly contribute observational reports. Apekina strikes a readable balance among these voices. And the chapters, dated between 1968 and 1997, allow for a circular view of the novel’s fully-contained world. The result is captivating and psychological. Although filled with darkness, the occasional flower makes the journey worth it.