Blogtober Day 13: Review: The Surface Breaks by Louise O’Neill

Blogtober Day 13: Review: The Surface Breaks by Louise O’Neill

“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.”

I found myself surprisingly underwhelmed by Louise O’Neill’s feminist retelling of The Little Mermaid.

You already know the story: a mermaid is so desperate to be a human that they give up their voice in return for legs. When Gaia goes to the Sea Witch for help, she brutally chops out Gaia’s tongue and makes her into a human female, warning her that – as well as being in excruciating pain with every step she takes – if she can’t make Oliver fall in love with her within a month, she’ll be reclaimed by the sea.

I’d seen rave reviews about this retelling, and because I already loved O’Neill’s Asking For It (even though it did emotionally destroy me) I was expecting this to be one of the best retellings I’d ever read. Sadly, that wasn’t the case, because the pace moves painfully slowly. There’s a huge focus on the way that the mermaids are treated by the mermen, demonstrating how sexist the society is and why Gaia is so desperate to escape. It isn’t integrated well, though, and it feels like preaching.

On the other hand, the last quarter of the story happens at a breakneck speed. It’s so fast that it’s hard to absorb it all, and compared to the dull and dreary dragging of the majority of the book it’s ridiculously difficult to keep up with everything that’s happening.

I really struggled to motivate myself to pick this up, and it’s been hard to motivate myself to review it, because I don’t have much to say about it. There’s no redemption: Oliver is a dick and doesn’t improve much by the end of the story, and Gaia doesn’t undergo much character development either.

I can’t remember the ending of the original tale of The Little Mermaid (my memory has been warped too much by the saccharine sweetness of the Disney version) so I’m not sure how unique the ending is compared to Hans Christian Andersen’s version, but it felt predictable. I know retellings are supposed to be predictable, but only to a degree – there should be something which makes them memorable and gives them their own personality, but I didn’t find that in this instance. O’Neill definitely makes her point about the mistreatment of women, but it’s delivered in a heavy-handed way which doesn’t make for great storytelling or interesting characters.


If you’re interested in learning more about The Surface Breaks, check it out on Goodreads. If you decide to buy a copy, please consider using my Amazon affiliate link: I’ll earn a few pennies from your purchase. Thank you!