‘The Surface Breaks’ by Louise O’Neill – Book Review

Blurb from Goodreads

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.

My Review

Hans Christian Anderson’s The Little Mermaid was my absolute favourite fairytale as a child. I loved it for its unrequited love story and bittersweet yet I always thought hopeful ending; I just loved the character of the little mermaid and how she gave everything for true love and when that didn’t quite work out she tried to make the world better with her good deeds.

FYI I hated the Disney film when it came out. It was so unlike the fairytale and just much too happy for me.

Yes. Apparently even as a little kid I loved my fairytales to be dark and sad!!!

Anyway, it’s only in recent times that I’ve ever really begun to think about the problematic nature of books and films from my childhood.

And I’m not alone it seems.

Enter Louise O’Neill and her desire for a feminist retelling of The Little Mermaid.

When you think about it, the original Little Mermaid fairytale is not exactly the type of story that we should be entirely accepting of.

Don’t get me wrong, I still love and adore it and that’s not going to change but it’s good to get a more authentic female viewpoint to the story. The idea of the original fairytale is that a young mermaid falls in insta-love at first sight and basically silences her voice and mutilates her body all so that she might mould herself into the perfect woman for this man she loves…

Not exactly a fabulously healthy attitude to have to love!

So what O’Neill has done with The Surface Breaks is given the little mermaid both a name and a voice. Given a more authentic viewpoint of the story but still held true to that wonderfully dark fairytale sensibility of the original.

She has crafted a beautiful reimagining of the story that feels more like a coming of age tale in this vein of bucking against a patriarchal society and it is a story of understanding who you are capable of becoming.

She created an interesting backstory for Gaia the little mermaid regarding her betrothal to a much older mer-man, mystery surrounding her mother Muireann’s death, and I actually really liked the use of the storyline of the bickering sisters. I appreciated that O’Neill’s aim was to show how they really didn’t have much independent thought and how they were almost interchangeable with each other regarding their personalities. Their practical uniformity of personality was a great plot device to show that these royal mermaids were just expected to shut up and look pretty at all costs.

Gaia herself was at times frustrating because you did want to slap her sometimes and say, hey don’t say things like that. It’s incredibly unfeminist of you…

But I guess that was the point.

Because for growth of character there needs to be a starting point and her starting point was really an entire lack of belief in the parity of the sexes.

There was some interesting world building regarding the creation of the sea kingdom with mention of power hungry characters, such as the Sea King and Zale, and warring / ostracised factions of sea society but I would have liked a more detail into the history of these events. I think it is quite clear from reading this book that O’Neill’s strengths lie in contemporary, realistic storytelling rather than fantasy based literature.

I was mostly happy with the main human characters in the story because I didn’t feel like we ever really needed to delve deep into the mindset of Oliver, the human that Gaia fell in love with. Our discovery of his personality traits and character from Gaia’s PoV worked really well because it revealed to us as the reader, as well as Gaia, what true love versus lust or insta-love is.

And a pleasant surprise was the creation of the character Eleanor, Oliver’s mum. She was incredibly interesting to read and wonderfully divisive at times. A

lthough, the best character is without a doubt the sea witch, Ceto. She has gotten such a bad rep in the past and I ADORE what O’Neill did with her storyline.

It’s probably the weakest of O’Neill’s books to date because I don’t think fantasy is really her strongest suit and it did sometimes feel a little “feminist by numbers” in that every single male character had to be a tosser; the male characters were pretty much stereotypes rather than developed, and we had to point out the harmful nature of living in such an over-bearingly patriarchal society at every possible moment to the detriment of a strong story-telling narrative.

It did however have a fabulously strong ending and I wasn’t ever once bored.

All in all this was both a thoroughly entertaining YA fantasy reimagining and a thought provoking reading experience.

three and a half stars

Trigger warning: sexual assault

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8 thoughts on “‘The Surface Breaks’ by Louise O’Neill – Book Review

  1. I really loved your review! I’ve never seen TLM, I honestly don’t know why, but I’ve heard a bit about this series. I liked how you pointed out that every male character was made to be well, a tosser. There are some very interesting points your noticed, I love reading reviews that are introspective of the story!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you so much!!!! I’m not a big fan of the Disney adaptation of the little mermaid but the original fairytale is one of my favs. And definitely I thought this book could have had more nuance with regard to character actions and motivations. It was very black and white, right or wrong… And I think the book was a little poorer for that even though I did truly enjoy the read :))))

      Liked by 1 person

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