The Deeper the Water the Uglier the Fish by Katya Apekina
Published by Two Dollar Radio
Publication date: September 18, 2018
Genres: Book Clubs, Childhood, Coming-of-age, Debut, Fiction, Literary
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After their mother tries to hang herself, 14-year-old Mae and 16-year-old Edie are sent to live with their father, a man they have not seen since they were very small children. For Mae it is a dream come true. Her mother’s depression and obsessive behavior falls on her, meaning long nights driving around Louisiana swamps or following strangers home. Edie, though, wants to be her mother’s favorite and so is furious about being taken away. She doesn’t accept her mother’s need for hospitalization and believes she can heal her. These opposing forces in the girls splinters their once close relationship, leaving them even more alone and vulnerable to the dysfunction around them. This dysfunction flows through Katya Apekina’s stunning literary debut The Deeper the Water the Uglier the Fish.
The dark center of The Deeper the Water is the relationship between Edie and Mae’s parents, Dennis and Marianne. He was a civil rights activist who met Marianne when she was 9 and he was 24. They married when she was 17. She was his muse, leading him to become a successful author, but at a cost to her own sense of self. They are so intertwined that even when they’ve been divorced and she is in a psychiatric facility she says “his breath is on my face even when he isn’t here”. By the time they separate they have daughters who fall prey to their toxic relationship. Mae looks like her mother and in her quest for her father’s love she lets that resemblance pull her into a very dark place. Edie, on the other hand, has no use for the father she believes abandoned them. She longs for her mother even when she knows rationally that she is damaged beyond repair. Both girls let love and longing for something that may never have existed pull them apart and into a whirlpool of dangerous behavior.
Intricately constructed, with layers on top of layers, The Deeper the Water could easily collapse into absurdity. Apekina avoids this by allowing everyone in the novel to weigh in on Dennis, Marianne, and their relationship. Instead of muddying the waters, this multiple first-person narrative, each a small chapter, is a link in a necklace heavy with damage. This stylistic choice by Apekina gives the novel a disturbing clarity and leaves the key characters no place to hide. Victims become perpetrators, the innocent are guilty, and the lies and denials used to build fragile realities are exposed.
Oftentimes, a book’s title never seems to play any role in the story, but The Deeper the Water the Uglier the Fish is an exquisitely appropriate title for this book that begins with a seemingly straightforward narrative—daughters going to live with their father when their mother can no longer care for them. It’s only as the story progresses from the clear shallows of labels—new love, bad marriage, crazy woman, deadbeat dad—to the murky depths of obsession, guilt, jealousy, and narcissism that things get ugly. Really ugly, in the kind of way that makes us so often content with the surface of life. Apekina daringly dives deep, hooking readers with raw, primal emotion and while it sometimes teeters on the edge of too much, her words, the elemental ferocity of her phrases, anchor The Deeper the Water in the heart.