I’ve always been a fan of The Little Mermaid. It was my favorite Disney tale growing up. Even when I was young though, there were details, and themes within the story that I took issue with or criticized, even if only in my mind. When I first heard about The Surface Breaks (thank you Bookstagram!), which is a re-imagining of The Little Mermaid, I was instantly intrigued and knew that I had to get my hands on this book by Louise O’Neill. Unfortunately, it wasn’t the simplest of tasks being that the book has only been released in the UK so far (can someone explain to me how this all works??), but eventually I got myself a copy and all was right (or at least better) with the world.
The book seeks to tell a different story based on the original story written by Hans Christian Andersen, challenging the themes that both Andersen and Disney wove into their versions of the story. The idea is to tell the story of The Little Mermaid through a more feminist lens. I would say that O’Neill certainly succeeded in this endeavor.
At first I wasn’t sure how much I was going to love the book, I just knew that I had to read it. I was apprehensive that due to how I envisioned this story, that I wouldn’t be able to enjoy it, but I was, and did. It actually exceeded my expectations! I worried that it would feel cheesy, being a re-imagining of a story I already knew so well, but it (mostly) wasn’t. There were many parallels between this version and Disney’s though, and I think for me, that gave it a comfort, but also a certain level of cheesiness because it felt like I was reading some sort of replica. Having of course seen the Disney film, I couldn’t help picturing characters from that. That’s not really a flaw of the book, just the way my mind works.
This feeling however, wore away as I made my way through the book. I started to see it less as a re-make of the Disney version, and more as it’s own standalone story. A different world started to develop in my mind. I would say that the book had a rougher beginning than its middle and end. But this criticism can be directed towards so many books from all genres – it’s really not much of a criticism, as much as it is a reminder to stick with a book even when you have your doubts! To clarify, I’m not saying I ever thought of putting this book down – if anything, I had a hard time doing so. I found that the deeper in that I got, the harder it was to put it down. I don’t know about you, but I struggle when I feel this way because part of me wants to devour a good book, and the other half wants to savor it. It’s difficult deciding who wins.
The goal of this book as I understand it, is to tell the story of The Little Mermaid with a feminist spin. If you are familiar with The Little Mermaid, you will easily see how well this is done, and even, why anyone would seek to do so. I think it’s wonderful to see someone take an existing story that has become such a classic, and challenge its flaws like Louise O’Neill has done so by writing this book. Sometimes I think we accept classics by suggesting that their flaws are just part of the package. We romanticize them in a way that seeks to lessen any criticism we might throw at them. O’Neill suggests that the story can change – that it can explore new angles and present different messages. I find that refreshing.
There are many overlaps between the Disney version of this story, and the one which O’Neill has created. There are times where it feels like you are reading the former, but you are quickly reminded that this is different. They are not one in the same. This is the story of Gaia, not Ariel. Like Ariel, she is from an important royal family. They share the burdens of family conflict and secrets, the growing pains of adolescence, the headstrong defiance of their cultural norms, and their overwhelming first forays into lust and love. The undercurrent of feminism that builds in this story frequently made me feel irritated by the latter. Yes, Gaia is like so many others (man or woman) before her, who have been overcome by lust, or even love as it is often misidentified. But it feels sort of misplaced in the messages of this story. I find myself feeling frustrated by her dramatic emotions, but also rooting for her and this new/first love? Perhaps it is because this love seems so pure and innocent, compared to the conflict and dominance that dwells beneath the waters – literally, and figuratively.
I try my best to review books in such a way as to not entirely give away the entire story, but I want to comment more on the ways in which feminism is woven into the book. While this theme is quite clear, it is also presented in more subtle ways which allows it to be a prime focus without feeling like it is the sole emphasis of the story (even if it potentially is). We can take from this story of fantasy, and find many connections to our own world. The idea of women being submissive is a big one. I suppose many of the smaller aspects of the story might fall under that category, as the idea of women being well behaved acquiescent creatures depends heavily on this character trait. I’m not sure if it feels more like O’Neill is using the story of The Little Mermaid to explore feminism, or if she is using feminism, to explore the story of The Little Mermaid. Either way, it is done well.
The world Gaia comes from is one rife in conflict. There are traditions under which she feels trapped and as the reader makes their way through the story, it becomes a question of what path she will take. Will she give in and accept tradition and the status quo of her world and life, accepting what is expected of her? Or will she challenge these societal norms for herself, and possibly others? Even after so much action within the story, it isn’t entirely certain what the outcome will be. I appreciate that in a book because I find myself often guessing the outcomes of books and or other media (TV shows in particular), and while it is nice to be right, it’s also quite enjoyable, to just simply not know. I value a book that keeps enough of the mystery in place so that the reader isn’t totally expecting whatever the outcome might be. Compared to The Little Mermaid, many of the pieces are the same in The Surface Breaks. So it’s impressive that there was still a level of mystery at all. In both books, we are following the story of a young girl who finds herself struggling between what she wants, what she should be, and what she potentially could be. You might not think that there is enough room in this story for variation, but O’Neill builds this story in such a way that proves this completely wrong. There are many layers to this tale and she weaves them together well.
If it isn’t clear yet, I really enjoyed this book. It’s honestly the first book I’ve actually purchased in a long while because a) I’ve been trying to read through a hefty TBR, and b) I’ve been trying to utilize my local libraries more. I’m glad that I purchased it because it’s not just a great book I could see re-reading, but its also a lovely book in terms of appearance. Whoever designed this book did such an excellent job. Honestly, it’s just stunning! The kind of book you want to display!
I hope that my review gives you enough intrigue to want to pick this up for yourself. I could have easily gone into further detail picking apart the story, but like I’ve mentioned, I do try to leave enough alone so that those that are interested, might be able to pick it up and read it to draw their own conclusions. I strongly urge you to do so because this is a truly great book.
If you have read the book, I welcome your thoughts in the comments. 🙂
Don’t forget, you can always follow my reading on Goodreads. I don’t review every single book I read, but I do rate them on Goodreads!