Sunday, 13 May 2018

Review: The Surface Breaks by Louise O'Neill

The Surface Breaks by Louise O'NeillThe Surface Breaks by Louise O'Neill (proof) - 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? Hans Christian Andersen's original fairy tale is reimagined through a searing feminist lens, with the stunning, scalpel-sharp writing and world building that has won Louise her legions of devoted fans. A book with the darkest of undercurrents, full of rage and rallying cries: storytelling at its most spellbinding. From Goodreads.

Trigger Warning: This book features sexual assault, sexual violence, suicide, female genital mutilation, homophobia; though we don't get to see any of these things on page, they are discussed. This book also features an on-page attempted rape.

I've mentioned before what a huge fan of the Hans Christian Andersen fairy tale The Little Mermaid I am, so when I heard the Louise O'Neill was writing a feminist retelling of it, I was so excited! One of my favourite feminist authors, writing a retelling of my favourite fairy tale! However, I finished with mixed feelings.

The first half of the story is pretty awesome. Gaia, our mermaid, lives in a very patriarchal society where her father, the Sea King's word is law, and all he wants from his daughters is for them to be beautiful, be quiet, and be obedient. The consequences for earning his wrath are violence. There's also a predatory, sinister feel to the story, in the ways mer-men look at and touch women. It's goddamn creepy and disgusting, and I felt more than uncomfortable more than once. The Sea King, Gaia's betrothed, Zale, and the whole society is enraging! It's disgusting, and you can't help but hurt for Gaia, her sisters, their Grandmother, and even their mother.

Besides the very controlling patriarchal society, there isn't much in the way of world building; mer-people exist, the Sea King rules, and everyone does as they are told. There are the Rusalkas, creatures from Slavic mythology and folklore; they are beings who were once human women who drowned after being betrayed and hurt by men. They are very much like sirens, in that they lure human men to their death with song, but instead of being beautiful, they have pale green hair, long claws and sharp teeth. There is some history on the war between the mer-people and the Rusalkas, but there's nothing about politics or culture which was disappointing. However, the story is being told by Gaia, a mermaid, and in this society, she wouldn't have anything to do with anything like that, so maybe it makes sense.

But what O'Neill does bring to the story is the backstory of Gaia's mother; Muireann. Muireann is dead; captured by humans and killed, because she was too interested in going to the surface, fascinated by humans. The Sea King has told his daughters that she abandoned them in favour of her obsession, that she didn't love them enough to stay home. The thought of Muireann enrages the Sea King, to the point that he even changed Gaia's name - her mother named her Gaia, which means "of the earth", and her father changed her name to Muirgen, which most people call her. No-one is allowed to mention Muireann in front of the Sea King, but Gaia can't let go the thought of her. They never saw a body, so is she really dead? What happened to her? Could she maybe be alive in the human world? So yes, Gaia does become enthralled with Oliver, the young man she saves from the Rusalkas when a storm destroys his yacht, and believes herself to be in love with him, but he's not the only reason she wants to be apart of the human world - she also wants to find out what happened to her mother.

I also loved what O'Neill did with the Sea Witch. She's not who you will expect, from reading the original story. She is powerful, she's confident, she is living her life how she chooses. She may not be the nicest, but haven't we learned that telling girls and women to be nice is another way of silencing us? We shouldn't make a fuss, we shouldn't raise our voice, we shouldn't disagree because that's not nice, and we don't want to hurt any man's feelings, would we? Well, that's not how the Sea Witch chooses to live, but that doesn't necessarily mean she's evil. She is, in fact, a feminist role model.
'"That is not why I am here, Sea Witch," I say instead.
"My name is Ceto," she snaps, pushing herself out of the chair until she towers above me. "It is your father who has insisted on calling me a 'witch'. That is simply a term that men give women who are not afraid of them, women who refuse to do as they are told."'
(p115)*
There are a number of themes in The Surface Breaks who fans of O'Neill will recognise from her previous books, almost a mirroring of those books, or of our society. Such themes are beauty...
'When my grandmother calls me "special", she means "beautiful". That is the only way a woman can be special in the kingdom. And I am beautiful. All of the Sea King's daughters are, each princess more lovely than the next, but I am the fairest of them all. I am the diamond in my father's crown and he is determined to wear me as such. He will hold my prettiness out for display and he will take any ensuing admiration as his due.' (p4)*
'We have been told since we were mer-children that extra weight is revolting. There have been mer-men who gained in stature as they aged, but men were not born to please the eye, as we were. Maids have been told that being slim is as important as being beautiful, as necessary as being obedient, as desirable as remaining quiet. We must stay thin or we will die sad and alone, spin-maids of the kingdom, cast to the Outerlands because we are a drain on the palace resources. Such maids are neither mothers nor sirens and therefore are of no use to anyone.' (p119-120)*
'"And doesn't she look radiant? One of the great beauties of the kingdom. A great, great beauty."
"That is the truth," Zale says. "I still remember the night of that ball, when it was apparent that she would become the fairest of your daughters. I knew then that she should be mine."
I remember that night too. I had just turned twelve. That was the night that Cosima began to cry.
"You were smart," my father says, pressing his fingertips into my shoulder blades. "You got in early. If Muirgen were not my daughter, perhaps I would have chosen her for myself."

He and Zale laugh, and I try to smile too. Just mer-man talk, I think. No need to be so sensitive.' (p30)*
...and rape culture and victim-blaming, and even entitlement...
'"Muirgen," Cosima sighs. "She knew the dangers and yet she kept going to the surface, day after day. She was reckless. She might not have meant to be captured, but she still brought it upon herself."' (p10)*
'"Typical girl," Zale says. "Distracted by shiny trinkets, regardless of their provenance. Things will change when we are bonded. These visits to the surface will come to a stop, for one. It's too dangerous your risk of capture increases with each return. Perhaps you should heed what happened to your mother. There's a lesson in that, isn't there? A lesson I'm sure you would do well to remember, especially when you belong to me."' (p78)*
'"But why would they be afraid of us? We have no powers."
"Of course we don't," she says, looking away from me. "But the humans do not understand that. They fear that their men will be overcome with madness and dive into the depths of the water to make a bride of one of us, finding only death instead. And then they blame us, as men have always blamed women, for prompting their lust, for fuelling their insatiable greed for something they cannot have."'
(p95)*
'"We are betrothed, Zale, but we are not yet bonded." I do not want him touching me. Ever since he decided that it was the sixth daughter of the Sea King he wanted rather than the fifth, I have felt his fingers on my skin. Just a light touch to the waist or the cheek, trailing across the small of my back. Nothing that he could be reprimanded for. Just enough to remind me who I belong to.
"We shall be on your sixteenth birthday," he says, and I look away. I do not want him to see my fear. "So soon, little one." It is tradition in the kingdom that maids are not to be bonded before their twentieth birthday, but it seems the rules can always be broken by powerful men. They created the laws, after all, and they uphold them, therefore they can shape them to their own desires.'
(p75-76)*
...and they make The Surface Breaks a really powerful story. These are just a few of the many quotes I have bookmarked, I could have quoted and quoted this book, but this review would have gone on forever, and it's already pretty damn long. It's a story that deals with the sacrifices Gaia makes - of her home, her family, and literally her voice - and how she changes her body to be more pleasing to a man in a way that addresses and remedies the problems people have with the original fairy tale. Imagining how thought-provoking this version of the story will be on teen readers, and how they may reflect on our own society, makes me so bloody happy. I so wish I had this book when I was a teenager.

But as a fan of The Little Mermaid, I was disappointed in the latter half of the book when Gaia has become human and is living with Oliver and his mother, because nothing of great importance really happens. Oh, here and there she'll hear or see something she believes relates to her mother, a few clues, but otherwise, she's just waiting around for Oliver to notice her, to really notice her. But there isn't much to Oliver. He's a spoilt rich guy - an adult at 21 - who leaves all responsibility to his family's company to his mother, spending all the money but earning none of it, and blames his mother for his father's death. I liked the fact that he's a person of colour, but he feels kind of like a cardboard cut-out, and really two-dimensional. And I kind of get it, there's nothing that great about Oliver, is this really who Gaia has sacrificed everything for? I've read other retellings of The Little Mermaid, and I have seen what can be done; I have seen how the original story can be built on and developed. Maybe it's not fair to compare The Surface Breaks to other stories, but even if I hadn't read others, I would still think that not enough was done with this part of the story. I actually lost interest; nothing was happening, and I was kind of bored.

It only really picked up again on the final day before Gaia was due to die. There were some really fascinating conversations had, and learning the truth about so many things was awesome. But then it went and ended far too quickly. Far too quickly. That ending should have been drawn out longer; Gaia finally has finally found her agency, and she's only given one single chapter in which she uses it, a chapter which isn't nearly long enough. I understand she was on a deadline, what with dying once the sun rose, and I'm glad it had a feminist ending, but there could have been so much more to that climax. So much more. And there should have been an epilogue, in my opinion; I think it was really unfair for it to end like it did. Unless there's going to be a sequel, it was really unsatisfying.

The Surface Breaks is wonderfully feminist. It's powerful, thought-provoking, and important. But at the same time, I feel the second half let it down, and it did end up falling a little flat for me. I would still recommend giving it a read, especially if you love feminist stories and/or feminist retellings. But I personally was kind of disappointed.

*All quotes have been checked against a final version of the book and are correct.

Thank you to Scholastic for the bookseller's proof.

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Published: 3rd May 2018
Publisher: Scholastic
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