The Surface Breaks by Louise O’Neill is a reimagining of The Little Mermaid. Branded as a story told through ‘a searing feminist lens… a book with the darkest of undercurrents’, it follows Gaia, the youngest daughter of The Sea King. She falls in love with a human boy and longs to find out what happened to her mother, but how much will she have to sacrifice to do so? Topics covered in this review include misogyny, gendered violence, and feminism. Spoilers ahead!
What makes a retelling feminist?
Let us start this review by highlighting that The Surface Breaks is sold as a feminist retelling that is ‘full of rage and rallying cries’. This is the reason for the above question. Does the main character have to be strong and woke from the start, or can they develop those skills over time? Do they have to be physically strong or is it enough to be mentally or emotionally strong? If they’re in a misogynistic space, can they be actively trying to change their surrounds or can they be focused on their own story/relationships? Can they still be affected by the patriarchy and be feminist (e.g. experiencing internalised misogyny, like being judgmental to others’ appearances)? There probably isn’t one definitive answer to the above, but we had these thoughts in mind going into the book.
We were intrigued by the idea of a feminist retelling of The Little Mermaid. The original fairytale doesn’t allow the titular mermaid much agency once she made the choice to see the Sea Witch. Not to mention, the whole story is about sacrificing your voice (literally) and changing yourself to win a man’s heart, and pretty much being punished for doing so. A feminist reimagining may have to tinker with the structure or the arc of the story to centre the mermaid’s agency. We wouldn’t have minded a romance element, if it was accompanied by other desires and goals (we actually think that the Disney version did this well: Ariel wanted to be part of the human world before she met Eric).
Unfortunately, for about 98% of the book, The Surface Breaks is about misogyny. The merpeople’s world is patriarchal to the extreme: fat mermaids are banished from the kingdom; The Sea King ranks his daughters by their beauty and arranges betrothals without their consent; and women are either mermaids caught in this structural sexism or angry Selkies – women who died in the sea following some sort of abuse and are out for vengeance. If anything, there’s more sexism in this retelling than in the actual fairy tale, and it is so relentless. Eventually it felt a bit like ‘yes, men are terrible, we get it.’
Gaia’s character growth – in terms of questioning the misogynistic values of her society, and unlearning them – is frustratingly slow. She complains about her world in her narrative, but she rarely does anything about it, or make active choices in her own life. Her active choices don’t really start until about the last 30 minutes. Is a story feminist if the female character turns vengeful and discovers some sort of power in the very last bit of the book? We don’t think so; and if nothing else, it felt unearned.
Gaia encounters one mermaid who challenges these values: the Sea Witch, Ceto. Ceto is closer to what one would expect of a feminist character: she’s not ashamed of her body and she doesn’t make herself small. She is as powerful as the Sea King, if not more, and was banished for it. We want to be able to say that she uses her power to help empower mermaids. Alas…
Magic always comes with a price. We don’t mind that part. What frustrates us is how Ceto sees Gaia’s supposed love for Oliver exactly for what it is (uninformed lust) and what it can lead to (disaster, death, even worse treatment from The Sea King to Gaia’s sisters who are left behind), and lets it happen. Later, she disguises herself as a human woman and uses Gaia’s voice to flirt with Oliver – perhaps to show Gaia that men are fickle and unreliable? By that stage, Gaia has been in pain for days and her feet are literally falling apart, with only a few hours to live. It’s torturous. Not to mention, it is then revealed (again in the last 10% of the book) that Ceto has known all along that mermaids used to have magical powers, and they didn’t need to suffer in order to have legs. It is told as a cautionary tale: be vigilant or your power will be taken away from you. This could have been a whole plot though?
To us, Ceto could have been the turning point for this story. She could have helped Gaia and shown her a society that allowed women to have agency (though, given that Ceto lives with Selkies who are just angry and murderous, that power may be limited). The story could have had this subplot of recovering the mermaid’s magic – it would have been so much more interesting than watching Gaia pine silently and suffer. Ceto could have done so much more, and the story would have been better for it.
Of course, stories about feminism can (and should) acknowledge the role women can play in supporting the patriarchy, and how they have internalised sexism even when they are aware of the patriarchy. However, The Surface Breaks is almost entirely devoid of female bonds in any form. Gaia’s only ally is her servant, and given how little Gaia can communicate as a human, they do not have a real friendship. Gaia’s grandmother loves her and her sisters, but believes their happiness depends on how well they follow the rules. Gaia’s sisters are either unkind or distant, as powerless as she in their society. When they do help her, it is largely out of their own desperation. We so wanted Gaia to have a proper friend; it didn’t have to be a woke friend, just someone who she could communicate with.
Final Thoughts and Star Rating
Priscilla: Honestly, ranting about it to Elise was the most fun part of reading this book. This book should’ve been sold as The Little Mermaid meets The Handmaid’s Tale. As it is, my expectations were not met. I felt exhausted by the trauma and misogyny, and the message about fighting back against those very things fell flat for me. Gaia’s agency and fire came too late; I would have enjoyed it more if she had grown more steadily across the plot. I haven’t even talked about Oliver, who is so bland as a love interest. Maybe he was intended that way (because no man can be trusted in this story), but it meant I kept waiting for Gaia to realise this and throw her energy into her search for her mother instead. In the end, I was angry for all the wrong reasons.
Elise: This book left me feeling disempowered. I don’t think every story needs to be like ‘yeah! girl power!’, or needs a happy ending. Nor do cultural criticisms need to inject false optimism into their stories. But The Surface Breaks just felt like wallowing in despair and trauma. I didn’t learn anything from it, nor did I connect with the characters or their struggles. If anything, I just want to go and watch the Disney version as a palate cleanser.
Links and suggestions:
- Spinning Silver by Naomi Novik is a loose retelling of Rumpelstiltskin, with three different women at the heart of the story. They are all up against some kind of discrimination, but each find a way to forge their own path.
- The Good Luck Girls by Charlotte Nicole Davis. While this is not a fairytale retelling, it tells the story of women stuck in a misogynistic and racist society. The girls at the centre of this story take charge of their own lives despite the odds being stacked against them.