Book Title: The Surface Breaks
Book Author: Louise O’Neill
Genre: YA Fantasy/ Faerie Tale Retelling
Publishing Date: May 3rd, 2018
Date Read: August 26th, 2018
Synopsis: 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: Rape, Sexual Content, Language, Violence, and Female Oppression
Original Faerie Tale:
The original tale of The Little Mermaid was written in 1836 by Hans Christian Anderson about a mermaid who was willing to give up her ocean life to have a human soul. She was the youngest of 6 daughters of the Mer King.
“After saving a prince from drowning, a mermaid princess embraces a life of extreme self-sacrifice to win his love and gain an immortal soul.”
You can read the original tale here.
I really wanted to love this one. I was promised a feminist re-imagining of The Little Mermaid, and I honestly didn’t feel like I got that. Literally the last chapter was the only place that that message came out strongly (and a teeny, tiny bit with Oliver’s mother), and I kept reading, waiting for the story to get better and to show a more positive message, but it just never got there for me.
As far as the retelling aspect of the story went, O’Neill stayed pretty true to both the feel of the tale and the major plot twists. Everything seemed to happen chronologically, as it did in the original faerie tale, and there was a lot of the original tale that was unchanged. But, she also added a really heavy hand to the feeling of the story, and the message that was portrayed throughout was very sad indeed.
Gaia, her sisters, and all mermaids of the kingdom, were heavily oppressed by the Mer-men. Being only 15, Gaia was promised to be wed to a man almost as old as her father, who was already over 60 when he took her mother at age 16. There was a HEAVY theme of beauty being the only important aspect of the mermaids, and even when Gaia obtained her legs, the humans seemed to only focus on her beauty as well.
Now, one would have thought that somewhere around the halfway point we would have gotten a message about how this oppression was wrong, and looks weren’t everything, and that all men weren’t shallow like they were in this story. We didn’t. I continued to see themes like “boys will be boys,” and “no girls allowed,” with a focus on the importance of being beautiful.
This didn’t feel feminist to me until the ending when Gaia finally decided that she gave up everything for a man (who was 6 years older than her by the way) who would never appreciate her. She finally decided to stand up to her father and take matters in to her own hand. She finally found that female empowerment to realize that the mermaids had been mistreated for far too long. But, this was only within the last 10 pages.
Even with Gaia finding this female empowerment at the end, and having the story show how wrong and disgusting this female oppression was, the story didn’t feel like it truly represented the feminist ideals of equality. There was not a single decent male portrayed in the story, and even the Rusalkas targeted all men instead of just picking and choosing the sinners.
I did enjoy the last chapter. I was proud of Gaia for finding her power and her voice. I enjoyed the addition of the Rusalkas, and their folklore, to the story. I even admired the descriptiveness of the world building, but I just couldn’t love a story that felt like it was written for the younger end of YA and yet still contained such a poor message, and still managed to throw in the f-bomb in awkward places, as well as an awkward scene of masturbation brought on by a drunken kiss.
The only other positive thing I could point out for this tale would be that it taught a few lessons, just like most original faerie tales intended to do. It showed the importance of feminism. It showed the importance of believing in yourself and your inner and outer beauty. It showed how wrong oppression and prejudice are, and it taught the importance of getting to know someone before letting yourself “fall in love.”
So, why did I decide to review this book for Faerie Tale Friday even though I didn’t love it? Because it felt very close to the original tale and still managed to teach a few lessons. Most original faerie tales had a reason for being told. They were meant to scare young children in to behaving or teach them to fear real monsters. This book still managed to do this.
In the original tale, the mermaid longed to break the surface, but mermaids were not allowed to until they turned 15. Once it was her turn, she sighted the Prince’s ship and witnessed the shipwreck, thus making the choice to save him. It was because she could not stop thinking about him that she decided to go to the Sea Witch to ask for legs to go to him. The Sea Witch demanded payment of cutting off the mermaid’s tongue and promising her that her beautiful body would be enough to win a man’s heart. She also promised severe pain each time she stepped as the price of the magic in the potion. The mermaid was told that she would never be allowed to return home, and if she was not able to win the prince’s full love that she would die.
All of this happened pretty much exactly in O’Neill’s retelling. The only difference from what I described above was that Oliver was not a prince, he was just a spoiled rich kid. And, in the original version, the mermaid was ultimately after obtaining herself an immortal human soul.
In both stories, it was tradition to sew pearls in to the tails of the mermaids for special occasions, such as balls. Both tales had a big ball that the princesses were required to attend. The grandmother in both tales pretty much gave the girls the same message of “Pride must suffer pain,” and told the mermaid that humans thought their tales were ugly.
In both tales, the “prince” did not realize that it was the mermaid, Gaia, who had saved him from the shipwreck. Both tales involved him not appreciating her or actually falling in love with her. The difference here was that he finally realized she was his savior in the original tale, but not until his wedding day to someone else. And, in both tales, on the night that the mermaid was supposed to die, after having failed, her sisters show up with a ritual knife, telling her they all gave their hair to the Sea Witch for another way to save herself. She was supposed to cut out the heart of the “prince” and drip the blood on her feet to regain her tail. She chooses to sacrifice herself in the end, not being able to go through with it.
So, O’Neill’s retelling was VERY close to the original tale, minus the heavy theme of female oppression, though I felt like the theme was mildly present in the original tale. Both tales taught a lesson of not following teenage hormones and thinking you are in love with someone just from seeing them once or twice. Both tales also seemed to boast about the importance of beauty but then remedied that heavy theme at the end.
What do you think? Have you read either of these?
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