© 2023 Iowa Public Radio
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

'The Deeper The Water The Uglier The Fish' Is A Darkly Beautiful Debut

Editor's note: This review includes a brief account of a character's suicide attempt.

Katya Apekina's debut novel opens with two sisters at a dance recital in New York. They've been brought there by their father, a man they barely know, but with whom they now live. "Mom is in St. Vincent's, resting," the elder sister, Edie, explains. "She has recently done something very stupid and I'm the one who found her." St. Vincent's is a mental hospital, and when Edie found her mother, she was hanging from a rafter, close to death, her youngest daughter lying in a trance in her bedroom.

It's a dark beginning to a novel that's both disturbing and beautiful. The Deeper the Water the Uglier the Fish is a shocking debut and an unforgettable look at the pain that results when the bonds between parents and children break under stress.

Edie and her younger sister Mae grew up in the New Orleans suburb of Metairie, raised by their mother, Marianne, a poet with a history of mental illness. Mae, 14, is very much her mother's daughter. She's given to deep introspection and falling into long trances. "We were like a hall of mirrors," she muses, "her-creating-me-creating-her, and so on. Which one of us was real? Which one of us was the reflection?" Edie, 16, is more independent, preferring to spend time with her boyfriend, Markus.

In the wake of their mother's suicide attempt, the girls are sent to New York to live with their father, Dennis, a former civil rights activist and novelist whose career has been in a slump. Eager to be free from her mother's influence, Mae embraces the move, but Edie is immediately suspicious of her father, who hasn't been in their lives for years. "We are such exciting material!" she says sarcastically. "Little mirrors in which he can stare at himself even more."

As the girls try to adjust to their new lives, they meet their father's sister, Rose, who has long resented their mother, and Amanda, a graduate student obsessed with Dennis, whom both sisters detest. Edie begins to plot her escape, heading with her father's neighbor back to Louisiana, while Mae becomes increasingly obsessed with Dennis, hoping to replace her mother as his muse. The novel hurtles towards a devastating and dramatic climax, with nothing working out the way the sisters hoped.

The Deeper the Water the Uglier the Fish is brilliantly structured, with multiple characters narrating the events of the novel. The main voices are Edie's and Mae's; Edie's chapters are written in the present tense, set during the girls' stay in New York, while Mae recounts the events from the future, looking back at their lives with the gift of retrospection. It's an unusual technique that Apekina uses to stunning effect, creating a kind of narrative tension that propels the novel forward.

The final parts of the novel are undeniably dramatic, but there's nothing forced or unearned in them. Apekina's characters are heartbreakingly realistic, and she treats them all with compassion. The sections that deal with Marianne are especially sensitive; Apekina doesn't write about her with pity, even though, as one character puts it, her "suffering was so huge it was like its own person: it needed to be constantly fed and tended to."

She also writes about Dennis fairly, although he's certainly not a sympathetic character. Egotistical and self-obsessed, he's unable to stop himself from essentially destroying Mae's life, even though he seems to think he's helping her. "Dennis made a show of nurturing her but really he plundered her for his own work," one character observes. "The same way he had used me and the Civil Rights struggle, and I don't think his work was good enough to justify this exploitation of pain."

It's the relationship between Edie and Mae that makes Apekina's novel such a success. The sisters have a tight bond that gets tested throughout the novel, and it's heartbreaking to read when it begins to bend and almost break.

The Deeper the Water the Uglier the Fish resembles a Southern Gothic novel — but with a contemporary twist. There's nothing derivative about it, though. The structure, characters and storyline are all refreshingly original, and the writing is nothing short of gorgeous. It's a stunningly accomplished book, and Apekina isn't afraid to grab her readers by the hand and take them to some very dark and very beautiful places.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Michael Schaub is a writer, book critic and regular contributor to NPR Books. His work has appeared in The Washington Post, The San Francisco Chronicle, The Portland Mercury and The Austin Chronicle, among other publications. He lives in Austin, Texas.