“My mind was a radio turned to her station and her misery paralyzed me.”
Have you ever picked up a copy of a book that you’ve seen everywhere, hoping it lives up to all the hype? This was that book for me. I’m usually pretty wary about overhyped books but I knew I would love this book even before I purchased a copy. I devoured this book and did not want it to end. This was the first time in a long time that I can remember not wanting to stop reading, no matter how tired I was, staying up ‘til all hours of the night. The world that Katya Apekina creates in her debut novel was unlike anything I’d read before. The novel is narrated from the perspective of several characters in the form of letters, journal entries, and documents, set in the past and in the present. These characters reveal different stages of the family’s life; the fractured narrative adding tension.
Although the story focuses on the four members of the family and their relationships with one another, it is Edie and Mae at the center. I loved getting to know the sisters even though everything they experience throughout (whether self inflicted or as a result of a choice their parents made) left me with so much anguish. At times it seems like they drew the short end of the stick; they grew up much quicker than other kids their age and had to parent their parents. There were definitely times throughout the book that I found myself irritated with not just the parents, but with Edie and Mae as well. They act with no regard to consequences and do not listen to the adults in their lives, especially Edie. It’s in those moments that you are reminded of who the actual adults are. Not that the actual adults ever truly reprimand them, they all live within the confines of their own dramas.
Apekina lays out all the dark secrets of the family in the open for everyone to see. She shows you the darkness that lurks within the family which may turn some away. She introduces an incestual relationship which remains an integral part of the story throughout the novel and sets a series of events in motion. This as well as the family’s history of mental illness may be too much, too triggering for some to read. She doesn’t have any of the characters apologize for their behavior, even when it is incredibly inappropriate. Edie and Mae’s father Dennis is usually at the center of the illicit behavior, using those around him—even his daughters. When they are sent to him and need him the most, he is unable to act like a father and uses Mae as a surrogate for her mother, Marianne, the woman he ruined years before. He doesn’t try to help Edie or Mae through losing their mother. When Edie runs away because she feels as if they abandoned Marianne, Dennis does nothing to try and get her back, nor does he protect Edie and Mae from further heartbreak.
“That afternoon was the first time I felt... I don't know how to describe it exactly. My head was in Dad's lap and all the happiness that I'd missed was being compressed into that moment. I looked up at him and I was no longer me. I was Mom, but not as I knew her. This wasn't her forcing her darkness on me, like a bag over my head. No, this was something else. I'd become Mom from many years ago. Dad felt it too, I could tell. Maybe it would have lasted longer if not for Edie, talking and talking, pressing and pressing. She wanted to take me back to the other mother. The one in the mental hospital who needed me brought to her, tied and quartered, like a sacrifice.”
Most of the novel revolves around Edie and Mae’s need to please their parents. Edie holds on to the hope that her mother will get better and return to her. She longs for her mother’s approval and acceptance and her presence in her life. Mae on the other hand sees an opportunity to start over again away from her mother’s grasp. She welcomes her once-absent father into her life and does anything she can to hold on to him. Mae seems to be the child that both parents obsess over and devote all their attention to while Edie is always on the sidelines begging for even a sliver of parental attention.
The novel explores parental relationships as well as sibling relationships. It shows how far a child is willing to go to please their parents no matter what they have done in the past. How as children, we are willing to forgive and forget to maintain a sense of normalcy. At the core of the story are two young girls who just want to be taken care of, they want to be loved. I think there was a part of me that was hoping the book would have ended differently, that it would have been wrapped up in a pretty little bow. Even though as I was reading, everything pointed to the contrary, to tragedy and loss of self.
Although the book left unanswered questions and fractured relationships at the end, the relationship between Edie and Mae remains strong. Thinking back to everything they endured and everything that occurred that should have torn them apart, the sisters finding their way back to each other was uplifting. Their relationship was tested and they survived—not unscathed—but they survived.
The Deeper the Water, The Uglier the Fish
By Katya Apekina
353 pages. 2018.
Buy it here.