The Deeper the Water the Uglier the Fish: A Novel by Katya Apekina

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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.

In this gorgeous debut, sisters 16-year-old Edie and 14-year-old Mae’s lives are upended when their mother Marianne is admitted to St. Vincent’s (mental hospital) to ‘rest’ after an attempted suicide. The girls are forced to live with their estranged father Dennis (a literary success) in New York, a man who thinks he can just pick up in the middle of the story and become beloved ‘daddy’. Edie wants to go back to their old life in Louisiana, to her boyfriend, her school committees, her mother. It’s no surprise she was the one who found her mother hanging that day as she has been the one taking care of Marianne for years, through her stony silences and strange episodes. Edie doesn’t trust Dennis, feels it’s a betrayal to even be living with him when their mother needs them so badly. Mae felt swallowed up by Marianne, fearful she is too much like her damaged mother. Mae doesn’t have romantized thoughts about her mother’s illness, it has always scared her. Now that she is free of her, able to finally be herself, she doesn’t want her mother back. With Dennis’ eyes watching their every move, which irritates Edie feeling like they are just ‘new material’, Mae feels being the center of his world is intoxicating. Edie is loyal to Marianne, Mae has shifted alliances to Dennis’ side. So begins the unraveling of the sister’s bond.

It’s meant to be temporary, but time stretches and Marianne isn’t getting better, Mae is under Dennis spell but Edie won’t let herself fall, despite her desire for the comfort it would bring. It’s too late for her, where was he all this time anyway? Busy with his women, not one thought for his ‘beautiful, beautiful girls’ who now have his rapt attention. Are they just a story brewing for him, serving as inspiration as their once  beautiful, fragile mother was in her youth? There is a story there, Marianne as muse, was she the abuser, or the abused?

The reader is witness to the blossoming of forbidden love between Dennis and Marianne, the civil rights movement, and dangerous obsession. With insight from Rose, Dennis’ sister, we are forced to wonder who is to blame for the fractured family. Fatherly love takes a dangerous turn as Mae never wants to go back to that life with her mother, never again wants to be suffocated by her mother’s madness. Yet the further she tries to step away from Marianne, into a new self, the more she becomes her.

Edith is too angry, too perceptive to put her faith in Dennis. In fact, she is downright disgusted with his writing, with his seduction of her young mother so long ago. There is  a line spoken by another character in the novel that expresses the emotional storms within, “It’s hard sometimes, ” she said, “to know where you end and others begin.” You can feel the ground shaking before it opens, know you are being led somewhere you hoped they would never go. Much like the photographs Mae takes, it’s an eerie exposure of the wildly different beliefs we have about our shared experiences. Both sisters are in denial about their mother and father. If Mae hitches her wagon to her father with fat dreams and madness, Edie holds just as much false optimism for her mother’s recovery. Like a needy kitten, love gets twisted for Mae and there is a point of no return. Edie runs to destruction as much as Mae does, they just take different paths to reach the end. There is no mistake that Marianne has been a destructive influence on Mae, who looks so much like her but Dennis… Dennis is a catalyst.

To say more, would ruin the novel. I loved it, Apekina writes beautifully about a very ugly subject.The title alone, isn’t it the best, had me itching to read it. I can’t wait for her next novel, writing about family dysfunction isn’t easy, and taboo subjects if done poorly can repulse readers but it all added up here. I don’t think Marianne is alone in her wounded bird fragility, she got some help toward self-destruction in the form of Dennis and that’s all I have to say about that. Yes, read it! I still have the taste of ash in my mouth.

Publication Date: September 18, 2018

Two Dollar Radio

 

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Crux: A Cross-Border Memoir by Jean Guerrero

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Brains are mystical. They perform alchemy in a place no one can measure. Yet the stories they yield exert as obvious an effect as gravity. 

Jean Guerrero’s father was elusive, misunderstood by himself as much as the rest of the people who orbited his life. Born in Mexico, later migrating to California, it is a cross border memoir of not just his physical existence, but of his mind as reality crosses myth. This is a crushingly raw, beautiful love story, in a sense, between father and daughter. “I’m sorry, Papi. Perdóname. I know how much you hate to be pursued. You’ve spent your whole life running. Now the footsteps chasing you are mine.”  Marcos owns his own reality of who he was, but who he became is at odds with it.  Incredibly gifted with all things mechanical, he houses a brilliant mind that is haunted by his mental illness, if everything he claims isn’t true. As he traveled the world and neglected his family, is it really possible that the CIA was performing experiments on him, or was this just a spiral into madness, extreme paranoia? Jean is on a mission to find her father, to understand who he is and to understand his splintered mind. Of course, one must start at the beginning. Her father is much like a mythical being. When he explains about real mind-control experiments that occurred in the 1950’s, it’s harder for Jean to dismiss the possibility of what he is telling her.

When her parents met, it was as if fate brought them together. Her beautiful mother was a Puerto Rican medical student, her father an magnetic man, his body fit from physical labor, a perfectionist in his welding. In his free time a voracious reader, nothing more important to him than stuffing everything he could fit into his hungry mind, Jeannette is like a gift from the universe, an equally curious mind, a twin soul! He lended his intelligence and strong English-speaking to his step father’s business, overseeing things, despite prior issues between them, past abuses. When he met the beautiful Jeannette, he knew she was the one. It wasn’t long before their love was cracking under the strain of his suspicious nature, there were signs early on of his illness. Yet, life went on as it does and warnings at the time were easy to dismiss as Jeannette had her career and a family to raise. Jean is born, “Fatherhood gushed purpose through his veins like a drug, but it wouldn’t be enough to tame her father. As her mother becomes a popular physician it seems Marco is healed by the birth of their child. Another child, her sister is born in 1989, they move into a home but then there is a betrayal by his half-sister, Amy involving  the family business he worked so hard to make a success. Marco breaks, despite his wife’s attempts to interest him in other endeavours. Soon, he is no longer the doting father. Unable to find his own purpose, he begins to resent his wife’s success, to feel emasculated and begins to use prostitutes, then gets obsessed with creating a garden but like everything else, once he has exhausted his passions, he collapses into himself. His adoration turns to contempt for his daughter, family. Life darkens, and his angry eruptions lead her mother to kick him out by the time Jean is 6. So begins the disappearing of her father.  With her medical knowledge, Jean’s mother knows it has to be ‘schizophrenia.’ Drug usage, escape through travel, her father is no longer the loving Papi who used to film his family’s every precious moment, in his own creative vision.

His absence is a wound, a dark hole she will spend years trying to fill, even emulating her dad, wondering if she too is suffering his affliction. She becomes a journalist, and this is the skill she will use to excavate her father and his family history, one rich with mystics, such as her grandmother who may have been a healer, or a witch. Exploring the madness, myths and truths of her father and his past she wants to regain possession of the man he once was, to atone in a sense for the wrongs he committed, to salvage the cracks in his mind and discover if there is truth in his ravings. What caused the split in his thinking, what are the voices he hears, where are the really coming from? This has been the year of beautiful, raw memoirs and Crux is another gem. How do we measure ourselves and each other, how do we steady ourselves as life, the world rushes us? How does a child come to terms with the embarrassment, resentment, fear, love, hope and cope with the crushing weight of loving someone who is a phantom? How can Jean extract the traces of poisonous anger she feels towards her Papi? In order to understand Marco, she has to enter the realm of his reality, to honor him by turning away from the protestations of logic and give his vision a voice. I was deeply moved by the idea, because the minute someone is labeled with mental illness or a disability of any sort, people dismiss their humanity. Everything they think and say is suddenly suspect, or without merit. Why do we do that? Is it some sort of deflection, self-preservation? The thought process seems to be,  “if I can see the sense in something that ‘crazy person’ says than I am not of sound mind”, there is cruelty in that, isn’t there? It robs people of their humanity. It’s easier to make them a non-person, isn’t it? Until that changes, we will never understand how to move forward, never be able to help people heal.

The American way is to trust in logic and science, to scoff at all things mystical or spiritual. Her father’s culture marries religion and superstition, with its beautiful myths and history. How is a man between two worlds meant to anchor himself in life? How is his daughter Jean meant to make sense of her own existence, to plant herself, make roots that honor both cultures and to make peace with her father? This is a fascinating journey, a gut wrenching memoir that manages to reach for light, hope. It is one of the most unusual memoirs I’ve read in years. Yes, add it to your TBR list.

Publication Date: July 17, 2018

Random House Publishing

One World