Katya Apekina’s debut, The Deeper the Water the Uglier the Fish, is the sort of novel I’m inclined to love deeply but acknowledge is impossible to recommend broadly. That said, I hope I’m mistaken; it has a 4-star average rating on Goodreads, which suggests I’m not giving the reading public enough credit.
Apekina’s novel reminds me a bit of Janet Fitch’s White Oleander, if California were replaced with New York and Astrid were divided in two. This is, perhaps, another way of saying that The Deeper the Water is a dark book, more filled with despair than joy (indeed, I’m not sure the book contains joy—if pressed, I might find something like it in the relationship between Charlie and Edie, but frankly, I’m grasping). The story is told in a chorus of voices, every (very short) chapter narrated by a different character, but the primary voices belong to two sisters, Mae and Edie, who are both differently and profoundly affected by their respective relationships with Marianne, their mother, and Dennis, their father. Both parents are artists, both unusually flawed in ways that damage the people around them. However, with one exception, Marianne’s and Dennis’ perspectives are never given (at least not in the present tense), which infuses them both with some level of larger-than-life mystery.
In other reviews, I’ve talked about my personal versions of literary catnip—among other things, I am drawn to unlikeable characters, plots that include or discuss the craft of writing (or art as craft in general), and stories decidedly lacking in sunlight (I like to feel claustrophobic and uncomfortable when I’m reading a novel—and I’ll take an unhappy ending over feel-good any day of the week). The Deeper the Water has all of the above in spades. There are many unlikeable characters, and, more importantly, those characters are well developed. Mae and Edie in particular both felt like flesh-and-blood people. Additionally, the prose is great on a sentence level, the structure is interesting (if not perfect), and the pacing is superb (I was literally always eager to turn the page). Finally, the novel has an element of surreality that I tend to appreciate (I’d comp Samanta Schweblin’s Fever Dream and elements of Lauren Groff’s sensibility in Florida).
In terms of criticism, I didn’t love the ending—not because it left loose threads (I love loose threads), but because I felt like it would have been more elegant to end the story in 1997. I didn’t need to see Mae and Edie in 2012, especially when their adult lives felt like an unnecessary ending tacked on after the fact. For that matter, while I didn’t mind Marianne’s brief (and only) appearance in Part III, I could have easily done without it. In short, I think the line, “Every few bites, a grain of sand gristles against my teeth,” would have been a near-perfect ending.
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I don’t know how much Edie knew. She would say I was Mom’s favorite, but it’s not true. It was more that Mom saw me as an extension of herself, while Edie was free to be own person.
I wouldn’t say I wanted Mom dead, I’m not a monster, but I wanted her vacuum-sealed somewhere where she couldn’t get to us.
I could never afford to be strange because I had people depending on me. Being weird is a luxury.
“… Your grandfather thought it was a mistake for me to try to fill up my loneliness as quickly as possible.”
I open my eyes and look at her. “Why?”
“It’s uncomfortable, but it’s a necessary step in a person’s awakening.”
Is it? It seems like not giving a hungry person food….
I loved you, Marianne. I still do. You’ve accused me of loving not you, but rather, of loving how you make me feel. What an absurd distinction. And not even accurate. You make me feel terrible most of the time! But I can’t imagine feeling anything without you. I can’t imagine being away from you. But I don’t have to imagine it, I suppose, because I’m leaving. You’re right. I don’t know how to be with you without wanting to take everything, without wanting to kill you and devour you and then bring you back to life, and then write about you and do it all again. Isn’t that love?
Mae was just so odd. Stewart reads a lot of biographies, and he says that all great artists have something awful or empty at their core that they need in order to fuel their work—Dalí and Picassio and Emily Dickinson. … I guess it applied to Mae. She was intense and inaccessible, and she made sure you knew not to get too close.
Art is not a shield. It is a knife. You have to bleed!