THE SURFACE BREAKS, by Louise O’Neill Scholastic Press, July 30, 2019, Hardcover, $18.99 (young adult)
Since 1837, people the world over have been enamored with a little mermaid who dreams of living on land. In The Surface Breaks, by Louise O’Neill, reimagines Hans Christian Andersen’s original fairy tale with a feminist twist.
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? —Synopsis provided by Scholastic Press
The Surface Breaks is so far from the Disney version that other than Gaia’s red hair, it’s unrecognizable. But then the Disney version was never very true to Andersen’s original. Here, O’Neill returns to source material and expands upon it.
While other versions of this tale have a dreamlike quality, The Surface Breaks is decidedly darker. It’s an angry book written with a razor-sharp pen.
In many ways, it feels like A Handmaid’s Tale set under water. Gaia’s father is beyond awful. In his world, a mermaid’s sole purpose is to look pretty and make mermen happy. The world underwater is suffocating. But the world above isn’t much better.
No one in The Surface Breaks is happy. And with themes of female oppression, violence, rape, etc., it’s not very uplifting. I think I could have moved past that … had I felt like there was some character progression or redeeming qualities. But by the time Gaia finally finds her voice — literally and figuratively — it’s the final chapter.
The end result is a very black-and-white world where men are evil and women should do everything they can to stay away from them. What’s missing from O’Neill’s world are the nuances that allow hope to unobtrusively shimmer through.
O’Neill is a strong world-builder and her writing created a visceral response. For that reason, I suggest this as a library read for those who are still interested.
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