From enigmatic plot to disconcerting characters, normality is but a common thread in Katya Apekina’s debut novel, “The Deeper the Water the Uglier the Fish.” Coming from a mother who swallows her loved ones whole and a narcissistic father, two daughters are torn between the chaotic obsessions and depressions of their parents. After Edith and Mae’s mother, Marianne, attempts to hang herself they are taken under the wing of their father, Dennis — a former civil rights activist and glamorous author. The plot is a series of question marks and unsettling flashbacks that are gradually filled out by the tangle of narratives.
Turbulent and beautifully twisted, Apekina’s narrative ping-pong game combines Edith’s present viewpoint with Mae’s retrospective future narration. Readers observe in discomfort the unraveling of each obsessively sinister relationship between parent and child. This charactorial tension is unsettling and glues your eyes to each passing word. Each character is layered with instabilities that compile and decompose. Alongside the instabilities of the other characters, they form a complex web of alluring destruction. The narrative is further peppered with psychiatric records, telephone conversations, letters and book reviews that provide backstage glances into the mental framework of each character.
Apekina employs a blend of perspective and shifting timeframes to propel the novel with stunning volatility. Edie’s chapters are dated with 1997, while much of the offhand excerpts are either dated from the ’60s or left completely undated. Many of the sideline excerpts are recited by witnesses like Dennis’s sister, Aunt Rose, his envious lover, Amanda, Edith’s new friend, Charlie, her recent boyfriend Markus and Cronus the cat. Each figure retells different pieces to this plot puzzle, and as the story unravels, so too does the mental stability of each character.
It’s almost easy to dismiss Marianne as a hallucinating, deranged women, but Edith’s determination to reclaim her mother’s name brings Marianne back into focus as a character of intrigue. At the same time there is ambiguity in the source of Edith’s hunger for her mother’s attention as she had always been the second-place child in her mother’s eyes. Mae struggles to distance herself from Marianne’s possessive influence as she describes, “Yes, mom dragged me with her to every terrible place. I needed to get as far from her as I could. She was consuming me. That day she tried to hang herself from the rafter in the kitchen, I’d been lying on the bedroom floor. My mind was a radio tuned to her station and her misery paralyzed me.” Mae replaces her mother’s obsession with her own delusional infatuation with her father. Mae desires to fill his need for a damaged, unstable muse. As Marianne describes best Dennis “liked his birds with their wings broken.” Almost ironically, Mae slowly starts to embody her mother’s mannerisms and manic tendencies to become the not-so-perfect muse for Dennis and is essentially consumed by insanity in the process.
Apekina asks an essential question: Whose voice gets to be heard? The famed father, a suicidal mother, two neglected daughters or the side characters who observe the chaos from a safe distance?
“The Deeper the Water the Uglier the Fish” exposes more than the inner workings of parent-child relationships and the darker shades of mental illness, it digs into pressing themes of today’s political climate and the gendering of society. It provides a timely interpretation of the silencing and reinventing of voices through the power of men. Apekina perfectly plants seeds for respecting and believing the voices of women while leaving ambiguous gaps in the narrative for the reader’s interpretative delight. The story is left unresolved for a much-anticipated follow up novel, and it’s good timing: The world was far overdue for such a relevant, tantalizing and desirably addictive novel.