Hello humans! Today I am adding to the many reviews that have this year fit into the year of ALL THE RETELLINGS. For those who are new here, for some reason, this year has featured a huge number of retellings both newly published and backlist titles. Today’s book, Louise O’Neill’s The Surface Breaks is a Little Mermaid retelling advertised as being a feminist retelling. On the whole, I can see why it was pitched as such, but ultimately, I was left a little disappointed. Let me tell you why:
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. A book with the darkest of undercurrents, full of rage and rallying cries: storytelling at its most spellbinding.
Content warning: Violence, Child Abuse, Domestic Abuse.
So, I’m going to start with the good bits and then move on to the things that bothered me. I thought that the writing style of this book was lovely. It’s rich description without being too flowery. You get the feel of the difference between the undersea world and the world above. I have always had quite a connection with the sea, I grew up down close to the coast and I’ve always loved the ocean, so books that take the sea as a theme are always enjoyable on some level for me.
What irked me about this story, however, was that nothing good happened to the main character, not even a semblance of good. The sexist world in which Gaia lives under the sea is terrible, that’s clear, but things don’t get better for her when she goes to the surface. There is maybe one powerful female friendship in this book, and it’s after Gaia loses her voice. I don’t know, I feel like I missed something with this book. I wanted it to be triumphant, and to an extent it was, but that came far too late in the day to feel as powerful as I wanted it to.
Of course, there’s a certain amount of dramatic irony to those who know the original story (does anyone not know the basic premise of The Little Mermaid at this point?) but even then, it still felt like Gaia was making poor choices. I don’t mind characters who make poor decisions, in fact, I prefer that to a perfect character, but you have to understand the motivation behind that decision, and for the most part that was just ‘a man’ which to me isn’t a feminist retelling. Certainly, this retelling gave Gaia more agency than the original, and it isn’t ‘old Disney’ levels of characterisation. But either Gaia had only the motivation of the handsome human to influence her, or all the other motivations were too subtle for me to really feel they were relevant.
As I say, this book isn’t written badly, the prose itself is lovely and the pacing of the story is great. It’s a nice quick read that I think a lot of people could potentially enjoy. I just needed one or two wins to offset the general misery of both the undersea world and the world above.
My rating: 3/5 stars
All opinions are my own.
What say you? Which Little Mermaid retelling is your favourite? Let me know in the comments below!