Review of The Surface Breaks by Louise O’Neill

Think you know the story of The Little Mermaid? Think again… This is a book with the darkest of undercurrents, full of rage and rallying cries: storytelling at its most spellbinding. 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?

I’ll admit that The Surface Breaks was a total cover buy for me.  I loved the scale design hidden cover and I managed to find a signed copy at forbidden planet – thing is was I really ready for yet another Little Mermaid retelling in my life? The answer is perhaps not.  Don’t get me wrong, it’s a great book, but it’s the 4th retelling I have read this year and whilst each has had it’s own unique take I feel like I’m pretty done with this particular tale now.

What stands out for The Surface Breaks is that it’s actually pretty dark and it has one hell of a feminist kick to it. Muirgen/Gaia/Grace really learns the worst of both worlds when it comes to how she is perceived and where her place should be. Revered for her beauty and voice under the water, she is little more than that.  She is a trinket, an adornment and at 15 years she is already betrothed to the worst kind of man.  With her 15th Birthday comes the chance to “break the surface” and finally glimpse the human world.  When she has to pay the terrible price to gain access to our world, it goes a long way to show how conditioned she has become to believe that beauty and poise is all you need for love. Ultimately The Surface Breaks is a tale of loss and sacrifice, made all the more harder to take when you realise how earnest she is to live the story she has come to believe about dry land from tales.

I found that the book was pretty “front loaded” with most of the action being crammed into the closing pages. Knowing it was a fairly short book I was surprised at the slowness of the start and then I kind of felt overwhelmed with the information overload about her history. That being said, the closing chapters have some of the most revelatory and poignant feminist writing I have read in a long while, I felt empowered for her and the choice she has to make when for many of us, we would be unable to make any choice at all.


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