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Monday, 14 May 2018

Reviewing 'The Surface Breaks' by Louise O'Neill

Wow. This woman's books just get better and better. I devoured 'The Surface Breaks' in a day. I pre-ordered it on Amazon the day before it was released (May 3rd) but it ended up being accidentally delivered to my neighbour's house so I got it the day after. SAD!!! But anyway...
(Will Contain Spoilers)

This novel is a feminist re-telling of 'The Little Mermaid' - not the sweet Disney version, but the original dark Hans Christian Anderson version. A lot less song-and-dance and a sassy crustacean sidekick. The cover is BEAUTIFUL; I am so in love with the design, plus if you take off the dust jacket the navy blue hardback is covered in silver scales.
Louise O'Neill, the author. 
So in this tale, Gaia - or Muirgen, as she is 'supposed' to be called - is a mermaid who longs to drift up into the human world. Her mother vanished on the day she was born, and her father and grandmother told Gaia and her sisters that her mother was kidnapped by humans, raped, and killed. However, Gaia often wonders if her mother is really alive. She is compared to her a lot; they both have red hair, blue eyes, a beautiful singing voice and Gaia is the name her mother wanted her to have, not Muirgen. In Disney's tale of Ariel the Little Mermaid, Ariel is also described to be a lot like her mother, Queen Athena, who blessed Ariel with a beautiful and powerful singing voice, as well as the same thick red hair.

Ariel and Athena in 'Ariel's Beginning.'
I loved Gaia; I thought she was kind and sweet, if naive and vulnerable, but that's not at all her fault. I think she was my favourite protagonist from O'Neill so far. Her upbringing hasn't been great; her dad, the Sea King, is horrible; unlike King Triton in the Disney film who is harsh but kind, the Sea King is a sexist tyrant who insists that all the mermaids in the sea adhere to his beauty standards, and doesn't allow his daughters to think for themselves. There were a lot of similarities to O'Neill's novel 'Only Ever Yours'; the girls' main assets are supposed to be their beauty, they're all supposed to be really thin and often go to bed hungry due to not eating enough, and they're all supposed to be married off to certain men without choice or question.

Those who don't agree with what the Sea King believes in are cast to the Outerlands, which is outside of the Kingdom. I thought that was a good nod to classism, about the privileged wealthy living in one area and the poorer being forced to live in another area. We are told about the Rusalkas, a group of women who were once human but 'sinned.' In folklore, Rulsaki are women who often commit suicide by drowning, due to abusive husbands or losing children. In this story it isn't really clear what happened to them, but its sort of implied that these are women who were mistreated as humans and so drowned themselves. They ended up breathing underwater, their hair turned green, and they sought to hunt down any bad men as vengeance.
The Rusalkas in the Outerlands are protected by Ceto, the Sea Witch, who was my favourite character. I loved the unexpected twist at the end. In Hans Christian Anderson's version, the Sea Witch isn't a bad character, and in Disney's version Ursula is the sassy infamous villain. But in this book, Ceto is the heroine; she is the one who saves Gaia from herself. She is the one who tells Gaia to join the Salkas and fight against the repressive regime against the Sea King and his band of cruel mer-men, like that dickhead Zale who was one of my least favourite characters (worst had to be Rupert, who reminded me of Bryce in 13 Reasons Why). I adored it when the Salkas devoured him.

Its also clever how O'Neill exploited how absurd it is to be in love with a man you've seen once. Gaia took one look at Oliver, felt really horny but mis-took it for 'love', and insisted the Rusalkas spare him. She gave up her voice and her legs to be with this young man she didn't know. I liked Oliver as a character and thought he was kind; he was spoilt and a bit reckless and immature, but a good guy. He liked Gaia as a friend, but clearly was still torn up over his girlfriend that died.

Guys don't want a slave for a wife lol. 

Gaia realised that later on; she knew nothing about Oliver and that actually falling for someone takes time and a deep connection. Its also great that O'Neill pointed out that guys want someone they can talk to and laugh with; all Gaia's life she's been told that girls are supposed to be quiet and do what guys tell them to do, but decent guys don't want a partner who 'barks like a dog' on command. They want a girl who they can be themselves around, who they can have a great conversation with and develop a companionship as well as romantic/sexual relations with. How could Oliver be in love with a girl who couldn't have a conversation with him?

But its no surprise that Gaia did fall for Oliver; after all, her repressive background would have forced her into marrying Zale. Gaia felt nothing but pure lust for Oliver, and was able to explore her sexuality as a human through self-pleasure as it was something women weren't 'supposed' to feel under the sea. And that shows how important it is to teach girls to welcome their sexuality and enjoy it, as opposed to hide it away and not be open with how we feel.

My only criticism of the book is that I felt like all of the male characters had been written with a negative spin in some way, and all of the women were somehow 'great.' In the context of the world the book is set in, the undersea world was horribly patriarchal so its understandable, but there was no need to almost 'put down' the male characters on the land. There was too much of a 'men treat women like shit, it's girl time' vibe in some parts, which I thought was unnecessary. I loved the story and I loved to see Gaia grow as a character with the powerful climax, however if feminists want to promote feminism as being about gender equality and men and women working together, an attitude of men being arseholes who put down women is reductionist, unhelpful and untrue.

But overall, I loved this book and want to read it again. I love anything to do with mermaids and fantasy and the underwater theme. Yay!

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I'm Zarina Macha, an author, blogger, and musician from London. I write about stuff on the internet 'cos having opinions is fun -- if you want to join the games, please note your thoughts below. All thoughts welcome, even if they're mean (just no spam links please -- can't tell you what a liability those are to remove).
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