Author: Louise O’Neill (twitter)
UK Publisher: Scholastic
Genre: Fantasy, Young Adult
Deep beneath the sea, off the cold Irish coast, Gaia is a young mermaid who dreams of freedom from her controlling father. On her first swim to the surface, she is drawn towards a human boy. She longs to join his carefree world, but how much will she have to sacrifice? What will it take for the little mermaid to find her voice? Hans Christian Andersen’s original fairy tale is reimagined through a searing feminist lens, with the stunning, scalpel-sharp writing and world building that has won Louise her legions of devoted fans.
I know they say not to judge a book by its cover, but I will be honest my initial interest in this book came from its stunning dust jacket. My interest was also piqued by its description as a “feminist retelling” of The Little Mermaid. There are a lot of books that will claim to be modern retellings, giving women a fairer shrift, but not many that will proudly stamp feminism on the front cover. In today’s market – looking at the incident with the Top Shop pop-up shop for example – being so forthright about feminism is a risky move. I’m glad they did it, I’m 100% into it.
I feel perhaps that the blurb didn’t help it. I wasn’t entirely sold on the name ‘Gaia’, and worried that perhaps this might be an example of the YA feminism sometimes seen, where the protagonist “isn’t like other girls” etc. etc. I was relieved that, upon reading it, this emphatically wasn’t the case and it very much delivered on its promised feminist narrative. Unfortunately this does involve a narrative with a lot of sexual assault, although largely it is heavily implied rather than explicit, as well as abusive parenting, food control and other such unpleasant topics. It’s not a book to go into if you have triggers. On the Waterstones website there is a warning saying the book covers dark themes not suitable for younger YA readers, but this isn’t on the book itself, and it is consistently found in the YA section, so it could be a little misleading when combined with the fairly non-committal jacket copy.
This book is brutal, and it is angry.
It begins under the sea – the blurb says it’s off the coast of Ireland, but in reality it could be anywhere, aside from the Celtic names which keep popping up. Gaia is known as Muirgen – her mother named her Gaia, but her mother ‘disappeared’ when she was a child, and since then her name has been Muirgen, in keeping with the name of her mother and grandmother.
The kingdom in which she lives is the ultimate Patriarchy. Her father rules with prejudice, men are treated well, women are only seen to be pretty. Anyone who does not meet her father’s exacting standards of beauty, wealth, or health has been exiled to a slum outside of the walled city – we are led to believe this includes any gay merpeople, those with mental health issues, disabilities or injuries, or merpeople who are anything other than slim, beautiful and wholly obedient. Mermaids are forced to sew heavy pearls onto their tails to look beautiful, even though they literally cause them to bleed, because the king demands that they do so.
The king himself is thoroughly unpleasant as well, sowing discord and tension between his daughters, belittling them, abusing them, and selling them off to the highest bidder for marriage. The novel begins with him just seeming strict, but as it progresses you get more sense of the fear, and the abuse.
As with the original story, Gaia is allowed to visit the surface on her 15th birthday, and whilst there she spots a boy on a boat and becomes obsessed with him. When a storm hits, the boy and his friends are knocked overboard, and fall to the mercy of the Rusalkas. Vengeful spirits of drowned, betrayed women, the Rusalkas are bloodthirsty, full of hate and very much out for revenge. In a moment of impulse, Gaia saves her boy, and in doing so paints a target on herself.
The narrative makes certain things very clear – Gaia is naive, clearly mistaking a first lustful crush for love, but part of that is definitely because her home situation is so unappealing that any alternative becomes gilded and precious. Her much older fiance, an arranged marriage her father has set up, finds out about her visits and blackmails her. Fearing for her safety from her father, she allows him to abuse her in exchange for his silence. There is a lot very triggering material in this book, across a number of levels, and it could be a very upsetting read.
When enough is finally enough, when Gaia reaches out for help and is turned away, the little mermaid goes to the sea witch for assistance, and so the story continues.
This is perhaps where, for me, the book became something more, and where the sheer brutality of the narrative becomes apparent. The sea witch doesn’t just take Gaia’s voice, we get a vivid description of her tongue being sawn out. She moves like a dancer, but each step feels like knives not because the sea witch is punishing her, but because her body is rejecting the legs and they are decaying and being mutilated with every step, every movement. This is an acceptable price, Gaia thinks, because the alternative is so much worse.
The Surface Breaks definitely takes the story back to the original, with the mermaid trying desperately to win the love of her prince, but being overlooked. She is not welcomed with open arms, and the people around her seem cruel and petty. I have seen criticisms for this book suggesting that all the men in this book are awful, but I think that’s unfair. Oliver, her prince, confounds Gaia by seeming to blow hot and cold, but he’s also been through a fair amount of trauma, and actually just seems to me more self-involved and a little thoughtless than outright bad. In any other book, with lower stakes, this wouldn’t be a problem. It’s the sort of issue you’d discover over a few dates and then move on. But because Gaia’s whole future is relying on this, proportionally for the narrative it becomes more difficult.
Another criticism I saw was that it felt like the book was pandering to the #MeToo movement and other such causes, with all the heavy handed discussions about sexual assault and emotional abuse, whilst making token efforts at diversity which were never explored further. Perhaps I can understand a little – some of the abuse sections in particular feel very oppressive. Rather like The Power, there were bits I didn’t enjoy reading, and it made for uncomfortable content. But then I consider the age range of the book, older teenagers who are just becoming aware of a lot of these issues, and I remember lacking an understanding of nuance myself at that age. Does it need to be so brutal for the message to be fully understood? But equally, just because a book taps into discussions and social movements, it doesn’t mean it is pandering.
This book perhaps will be very much of its time – comparing The Power and Herland, for example, shows the ways feminist literature can change across 100 years. The Surface Breaks is definitely more The Power end of the spectrum, but perhaps there is something hopeful there too. The narrative builds up anger and outrage, and at the end gives a very cathartic release. I felt resolution and power with the ending, and I can only imagine the way it would have blown my mind had I read it as a teenager.
The message it sends is very clear, so in reality it is down to you to decide whether it is one you are comfortable with. At the very least, I think it opens room for discussion about certain topics, and that’s no bad thing at all.
- A brutal, angry, and visceral retelling of The Little Mermaid, taking the story back to Anderson’s original and cranking it all up to 11.
- This is a book with a clear angle and message – it’s advertised as feminist, so deals with a lot of issues which are currently the focus of feminist campaigning. These aren’t the nicest of topics, so be aware that this isn’t a fluffy read and I definitely wouldn’t say it was suitable for the younger end of the YA audience.
- Although it claims to be set off the coast of Ireland, it has a strange quality where it could be almost any place and almost any time. A few things sneak through to suggest it’s modern day, but I found myself weirdly picturing it in the 30s, with all the style of a Poirot episode. It could be anywhere and everywhere, anywhen and always.
- The dust jacket is beautiful, but the book underneath is quite lovely too, with foiled scales wrapping around the cover.
Rating: 4/5 – It’s a hard book to read, but thematically I think it sits well alongside other feminist books such as The Power and Herland, and it was nice to read a fairy tale retelling that married itself to the original work but still gave a new spin.