“We are women. And women are warriors, after all.”
Gaia is the youngest and most beautiful of The Sea King’s six mermaid daughters. Though she is only fifteen, Gaia’s flawless face and her talent for singing have attracted not only the envy of her sisters, but also the attentions of Zale; the kingdom’s most admired warrior. Despite his status, Gaia is repulsed by Zale due to his advanced age and controlling nature. However, the Sea King’s word is law, thus Gai cannot ignore his command that she must marry Zale once she reaches the age of sixteen.
Gaia’s daydreams of freedom from her oppressive father lead her to wander far from her home, and progressively closer to the human world. On one such outing, Gaia glimpses a handsome human man named Oliver celebrating his twenty – first birthday upon a ship. Tragedy strikes when a group of Rusalka’s attack the boat, intending to kill all on-board. Unable to bear the sight of the beautiful man’s death, Gaia decides to save Oliver – rescuing him from the wreckage and seeing him safely to the shore.
Weeks later, Gaia cannot get the thought of Oliver out of her head. Yet, with her sixteenth birthday and impending nuptials approaching, Gaia knows that the time for fantasising is through; she must take action. Thus, spurred on by her jealous sister, Cosima, Gaia makes a bargain with her father’s enemy, The Sea Witch. Gaia is given legs so that she may walk on land, but in exchange, The Sea Witch takes her voice. Yet, Gaia stands to lose far more than just her voice, for if she cannot make Oliver fall in love with her by the next full moon, she will die.
Despite the fact that I absolutely adored both of Louise O’Neill’s previous YA works (Only Ever Yours and Asking for It), I went into The Surface Breaks with low expectations. Thanks in part to it’s beautiful cover, and press releases describing the book as a “feminist retelling” of Hans Christian Andresen’s The Little Mermaid, The Surface Breaks has been surrounded by a lot of hype and discussion. Unfortunately, most of the reviews of the book that I’ve come across have been fairly negative. Some have even been scathing and highly critical of O’Neill’s feminism. Thus, when I begun the book, I wasn’t expecting to enjoy it. I know it’s not good to be so influenced by other’s opinions, but some of the reviews I read were written by people I generally share common opinions with, so I was more inclined to take them into consideration. Now, having finished the book, I’m pleased to say that I completely disagree with every negative review I came across. This book is amazing. Yes, the first 90% or so of the book is heartbreaking and devastating, but it’s ending made up for that by being both empowering and illuminating. Once again, Louise O’Neill has cast her searing gaze upon the world and delivered a novel that shows us not only how ridiculous, but also how severely destructive patriarchal society can be.
It seems to me that The Surface Breaks has been widely misunderstood by it’s audience. I feel like when readers heard the term “feminist retelling” they expected something more along the lines of Girls Made of Snow and Glass. Basically, they wanted a kick ass heroine who embodied the values of feminism and found strength through sisterhood. And we do see some of that in The Surface Breaks, but not till very late in the book. At the beginning of The Surface Breaks, Gaia is most definitely not a feminist. If anything, she’s quite the opposite. She’s a deeply naive character who has spent all her fifteen years being brainwashed by her father’s misogynistic beliefs. Gaia has been told her entire life that her only value is her appearance and that her highest duty is to attract and please men. The women and men around her adhere to this doctrine completely; thus, when Gaia meets Ceto (The Sea Witch), she is shocked. Ceto is a woman who openly flouts her disdain for The Sea King and his patriarchal ways, and she’s probably the only character in the book to actually display feminist values. Where Gaia is ignorant and completely without agency, Ceto is powerful and wise. In Disney’s version of the Little Mermaid, The Sea Witch is a villain, but here she’s more of a mentor. It is Ceto who first teaches Gaia to question the word of The Sea King and when she strikes her bargain with Gaia, she sets Gaia on a path that will ultimately lead Gaia to find her voice and power.
Even the term “retelling” is a little misleading in relation to The Surface Breaks. Fairytale retellings have been quite popular over the past few years, with books like Marissa Meyer’s Cinder taking classic stories and giving them a modern update. For the most part, these popular retellings have been fun, light hearted romps that feature a whole lot less sexism than the original stories do. Characters who were once damsels in distress have evolved into heroines with complex personalities and are now just as capable as their male counterparts. The Surface Breaks doesn’t fit in with those kind of retellings. If anything, I would describe it as more of a criticism of the original The Little Mermaid, for O’Neill keeps her plot very similar to Andersen’s, but points out and exacerbates the many instances of sexism in the base text. One of the most horrible elements of both the original story and O’Neill’s version is that once the mermaid has transformed into a human, she will experience excruciating pain with every step she takes. Her feet will bleed, and it will constantly feel like knives are stabbing into them. Disney’s 1989 version of The Little Mermaid completely skips over this part, turning what is quite a dark tale into a light and fluffy romance. In contrast, there is literally no romance in The Surface Breaks. Yes, Gaia believes herself to be in love with Oliver, but as wise Ceta points out, Gaia doesn’t even know the guy. She just assumes that he’s got to be better than Zale. Oliver isn’t a love interest, he’s a tool for Gaia to use to escape the oppressive, patriarchal world of Zale and The Sea King. Unfortunately, Gaia soon realises she has pinned her hopes on the wrong man; she has escaped from one patriarchal society straight into another. Ultimately, the only love we see in this book is the love that Gaia feels for her sisters, her mothers, and her friend Daisy.
In this sense, The Surface Breaks does the exact opposite of what Disney and a lot of recent retellings do. Instead of glossing over the more unsavoury elements of the story, or reworking them to reflect modern values, O’Neill brings the darkest parts of The Little Mermaid to the front and centre of her narrative. O’Neill does not write to entertain her audience or make them smile; she writes to make us think and question mainstream values. Through The Surface Breaks, O’Neill asks; how can we, as a society, take a tale in which a young woman is willing to experience agonising pain and give up her greatest asset (her voice) in order to win the approval of a man, and turn it into something romantic? Because there’s nothing romantic about that; it’s just tragic and messed up. The Surface Breaks also raises wider questions about the pain women endure for beauty, and in order to adhere to patriarchal standards (“Every maid in court has been told that we must maintain a certain weight for the aesthetic preference of the Sea King and his mer-men.”) In this sense, The Surface Breaks reminds me a lot more of feminist non fiction works like The Beauty Myth or Female Chauvinist Pigs than popular fairytale retellings like The Lunar Chronicles.
As I’ve said before, I’m a Louise O’Neill fangirl. I adore her feminism, her writing style, and her unflinching honesty. And yes, I admit that I also admire her beauty, her wonderful sense of style, and her mastery of the winged eyeliner look. I wouldn’t necessarily say that she’s one of my role models, but she’s definitely a woman I admire. However, I certainly acknowledge that O’Neill’s books aren’t easy to read. They’re dark, gritty, and they hardly ever have happy endings. The Surface Breaks is supposed to make you angry and get you thinking about all the ways the patriarchy continues to influence our lives. If you want a light, happy story, or even likeable characters, O’Neill’s books probably aren’t for you. However, if you’re up for an allegorical critique of the patriarchy through the retelling of a classic story, then I’d definitely recommend checking out The Surface Breaks. Ultimately, this book is about a young woman who overcomes oppression to learn her true worth, and the value of standing up for herself, and for me, that makes for a worthwhile story. Though I definitely don’t think this book will appeal to everyone, I absolutely loved it.