Split Lip REVIEWS 

 Katya Apekina's The Deeper the Water the Uglier the Fish

by Lauren Dostal

The Deeper the Water the Uglier the Fish

Two Dollar Radio | September 18, 2018

363 pp.


You are standing in the middle of a room. A girl approaches, presses your hand, and says, “I want to tell you a story.” She does not get very far when another girl enters from another door. She skips up, presses your other hand, and says, “Don’t listen to her. Listen to me.” Soon you are caught up in a tug-of-war, opposing versions of the same cruel story tugging you first right, then left, then right again. Your body is suspended in air, a forgotten token of their battling tales, and all the while, voices keep entering the room, commenting, taking sides, attacking, denying, or dismissing the story entirely. Thus begins Katya Apekina’s debut novel The Deeper the Water the Uglier the Fish.


After their mother, Marianne, tries to hang herself, two sisters, Edith and Mae, are sent to live with their estranged father, best-selling author Dennis Lomack, in New York. For 14-year-old Mae, this is the opportunity of a lifetime. Long held captive by her mother’s mental instability, Mae is eager to live a new life in the sunlight of her father’s perfection. 16-year-old Edith is less enthused. She has never believed her baby sister’s stories of their

mother’s madness—how Marianne would wake Mae in the middle of the night to tail strangers in their car or skinny dip in murky Louisiana swamps. Their life was eccentric, sure, and Edith found herself caretaking much of the time, but wasn’t it beautiful? And weren’t they responsible to put things right again? Besides, Edith tries to reason with Mae, Dennis will only leave them again. It is in his nature. At odds with the versions of their parents they have chosen, and with a tapestry of voices chiming in at every turn, the sisters choose diverging paths, leading both into devastating futures.


The Deeper the Water is largely a book about madness, populated by characters driven by their various instabilities. But it is also about truth and whose stories we allow to be told. These layered, complex characters step over each other in their attempt to right the record, and in this, Apekina poses a fundamental question about recollected trauma: who do we believe? The successful father, the mad mother, the unstable teens, the ex-friends, the colleagues, the lovers, the relatives; everyone has their opinions, and everyone wants to be heard. But when the stakes are so high, is it more important to find a rational center or to listen to the girls whose lives have been torn apart and to take them at their word?


This question (and Apekina’s answer) is best summed up with an anecdote: the author has said that one potential agent, in a depressingly status-quo move, suggested that she rewrite the novel from the dad’s perspective. But Apekina utterly rejected the idea that the girls’ father—a best-selling male author who leeches the life out of those around him for inspiration—had any right to have his version of events put down for posterity. This leaves us with the grieving, the young, the victimized, and the mad, and Apekina’s authorial voice telling us that, yes, this is truth. It is contradictory, and it is truth. Believe them.


The Deeper the Water is a dark, brilliant tapestry. It is a murky pool filled with dangerous beasts, their dark bodies just cresting the surface before disappearing into the depths. A stunning and feverishly readable debut, it is destined to send the most easy-going of readers spiraling into a book hangover.

Lauren Dostal is an assistant prose poetry editor for Pithead Chapel. She graduated from Florida State and now lives in a steamy, mosquito-ridden suburb of Tampa, FL where she devours books like her life depends on it (it does). Her recent work can be found in Entropy, Philosophical Idiot, and Always Crashing. She tweets at @ell_emm_dee.