Today’s review comes from soon-to-be PhD candidate, Jennifer Gouck. Jennifer’s doctoral research will consider the“Manic Pixie Dream Girl in YA Literature, Media, and Culture,” particularly with regard to gender, masculinity, and femininity.
The Surface Breaks: A Reimagining of The Little Mermaid (9781407185538)
Scholastic, £12.99 (Hardback)
3rd May 2018
In a merkingdom deep beneath the cold Irish sea, young mermaid Gaia (also known as Muirgen) dreams of freedom, of breaking the surface and leaving her controlling father behind. On her fifteenth birthday, she realises her dream and swims to the human world for the first time – but she sees a terrible shipwreck on her visit. Drawn to a boy, Oliver, whom she saves from drowning, Gaia longs to return to land to join him forever; how much will she have to sacrifice to be with her the human she loves?
Having read Louise O’Neill’s previous two YA novels (Only Ever Yours  and Asking for It ) as well as her first non-YA novel, Almost Love, published in March of this year, I was more than a little bit excited when I received an ARC of The Surface Breaks through my work as a Senior Bookseller in Waterstones. Hailed as a searing feminist re-telling of Hans Christian Andersen’s The Little Mermaid with dark, twisted undercurrents, I was interested to see how O’Neill’s latest YA offering would bring Andersen’s tale into the twenty-first century. But: did it live up to the hype?
The answer is yes and no. O’Neill paints a stunningly detailed picture of the Merkingdom in which Gaia (re-named Muirgen by her father in the wake of her mother’s untimely death) lives. The Kingdom is courtly, reminiscent of the sort of society we would associate with eighteenth century England; Gaia sits on a throne of coral in her bedroom, and the ball thrown in honour of her fifteenth birthday is extravagant, with “gem stones embedded in the coral walls. Blood-red streamers hanging from the ceiling, woven from every sea-flower within the vicinity of the palace.” (19). Gaia’s obsession with humanity is established by the second page, her room an underwater museum of human artefacts pulled from shipwrecks and sailors from the world above. O’Neill’s attention to world-building runs deeper still; the name ‘Gaia’, invokes the Greek goddess who presided over the earth, while ‘Muirgen’, the name Gaia’s father gives to her after her mother’s death, means ‘born of the sea’ in Gaelic. Grandmother Thalassa’s name is also water-based, meaning ‘of the sea’ in Greek, while Gaia’s mother Muireann’s name means ‘sea white’ or ‘sea fair’, sharing its origins with Muirgen in Irish legend.
This level of nuance, however, crumbles elsewhere in the novel, and I found myself rolling my eyes at the heavy-handed nature of the characters’ symbolism. Take, for example, The Sea King. Gaia’s father rules the Merkingdom with a strict hand. Each of his daughters is (or will be) ‘bonded’ to a merman of his choosing, based on what is best for the Kingdom. The Sea King also prioritises the ‘purity’ of his people above all else; to enforce this, many years ago he banished the Rusalkas, a ‘sub-class’ of mer-folk, to the land beyond the Kingdom. With his all-male army at his right hand side, The Sea King expects the mermaids in his life to be beautiful, highly decorated, meek beings who should not speak unless spoken to. Indeed, at Gaia’s birthday ball, he arranges his six daughters, each with pearls sewn into their tails, in a line behind him from most to least beautiful. At one point, The Sea King makes a Trumpian comment that, were she not his daughter, he would choose Gaia for himself.
Did you get it? The Sea King is The Patriarchy! Subtle, right? Let’s try another…
Ceto, the Sea Witch, and her Rusalkas occupy the gloomy, decaying space beyond the Kingdom known as The Darklands. When Gaia goes to visit Ceto, she is shocked by what she sees: “A tail so black that it dissolves into the gloomy sea … Skin pale, and so much of it – rolling into ruffs of flesh around her neck, spooling around her waist … I did not know such a body was allowed to exist” (112). Ceto is overtly comfortable with her body, oozing sexual energy. To top it all off, she even wears – gasp! – red lipstick! Meanwhile the Rusalkas, green in colour, are the women the world rejected. They are orphaned, had their babies taken from them, or were abused while they walked the earth; the sea gave them new life.
Did you get that one? Yes, that’s right: Ceto is a third wave feminist, a ‘new woman’, and the Rusalkas are those (Irish) society left behind. #RepealThe8th, anyone?
It was in moments like these I found myself frustrated with O’Neill, a writer I know and love for her subtlety and nuance. In a nod to Andersen’s original, The Surface Breaks is fairy-tale-esque in its style and tone, almost poetic in its language. But, in blurring this with her feminist re-telling, O’Neill’s trademark multi-faceted writing became hidden under a clumsy first layer. Unlike her previous work, the ‘message’ here is used to violently smack you in the face over and over again. Perhaps this is homage to the original fairy-tale form which, of course, was known for its didacticism. Or, perhaps, it is to indicate that, on the issue of our patriarchal society, where Gaias everywhere are attempting to find their voice, the time for subtlety has passed. Either way, this approach sadly left me underwhelmed on the first reading, and it was only as I spent more time with the novel that I began to appreciate the quiet details that had been overwhelmed by O’Neill’s thunderous writing elsewhere.
To sum up, The Surface Breaks wasn’t quite the tour-de-force I was hoping for. That said, it is a solid feminist re-telling of the original fairy-tale. It is as visceral and unsettling as O’Neill’s other work, with Gaia falling into the ‘frustratingly unlikeable yet often relatable’ category of women O’Neill is famous for crafting. Overall, though, the novel fell short for me. I felt that it fell into that old trap of telling me about the mer-folks’ patriarchal society, about how Gaia’s painful walk on land was just as suppressing as her swim beneath the sea, about the weight of societal expectation which women with tails and with legs both have to bear. The Surface Breaks didn’t just lead me to the water, it forced me to drink from the very spot in the well of its choosing. An invocation of folk- and fairy-tales gone by? Perhaps. But O’Neill’s audience is not Andersen’s, and her intelligent readership, young and old alike, may find this technique tiring – an approach from which the novel should, like Gaia, have broken free.
3 out of 5 stars.