Book Review #58 – The Surface Breaks

I shall be passed from one man to the next, ownership transferred with ease of a handshake and I will be expected to smile as the deal is done – Louise O’Neill.

What. A. Book.

When we are children, we are told stories of mermaids and fairies, princes and princesses, of true love which conquers all with the spellbinding phrase and they lived happily ever after which continues to be our source of hope for the rest of our childhood years, until we learn of heartbreak and sacrifice, of real life and creating our own versions of happy ever afters.

Gaia, our fishtailed heroine with luscious red hair, a perfect face and a voice so sweet she can make the hardest of mer-men cry, dreams of what is above the surface. She wonders about human life with their many mechanisms and she wishes she knew what happened to her mother the year Gaia turned just one year old. Gaia is her earth name, something her father, the Sea King, refuses to hear. Her sea name is Muirgen. She hates it with a passion, wanting to rip it out of her chest. Gaia is betrothed to Zale, a warrior of sixty-three years. He wants to possess her, to encapture her, to become the mightiest mer-man in all the ocean. To do that, he must have the most beautiful of sea creatures, and Gaia, unfortunately, is that creature. But, as the story goes, Gaia will break the surface and become a girl – not a monster – but she will have to sacrifice everything in the name of love, something she is too young to understand.

This tale of lost love, smiling through pain and always doing what is deemed a girl should do is utterly awe-inspiring. Louise O’Neill has written a story that is cut-throat, jagged, heart-piercing, awful and yet so beautiful and fascinating that the beauty and horror merge together in a jarred setting. It plunges you deep under the depths of a dark water so hard that you will struggle to catch your breath.

The obvious feminist take on the classic story rings true in many aspects. We have girls who are turning sixteen, being taught that looking pretty for suitors is far more enticing than having a voice. The females who are deemed enemies are the salkas who are ugly and frightening with green hair and jagged teeth, like a shark. The Sea Witch is the most powerful mermaid in all the oceans. She is revolting in a mer-man’s eye, but beautiful in her own. So, who holds the true eye of beauty? Then, we have Gaia’s mother: a mermaid who is remembered through the lens of those who knew her. Could everything they say be the truth? On land, a rich mother is deemed as bossy, wild-eyed and tragic. However, she keeps an entire company afloat; she is the one who holds the riches and it is she who is left alone in the world to wither. There are so many variations of what a woman is deemed to be, what a woman should be; even with the empowering words we are women; we are warriors, it is another thing that Gaia should adhere to in order to be viewed as strong against her father, the Sea King.

With every choice we make, there is always a consequence. With that consequence, there is a lesson to learn. The loss of voice is even more significant in this story than any version before it. We live in a day and age where we are told to use our voices, to let them be heard. At the same time, we are told to shut up and be quiet, that we will not be listened to because our voices are not as important as others, especially if there is but one small voice. How likely is it that one voice in a loud sea will ever be heard? Gaia has remained quiet for too long, and yet she hands her most prized possession over to the Sea Witch, thinking it will help her gain a brand new life. On land, she wishes that she could talk and scream and cry and laugh and sing, but she cannot. No sound emerges, just a bitter silence, full of regret. It was her own choice to give up her voice so quickly, and a beautiful, strong voice at that.

This dark and twisted tale is a story that everyone should read. Not only women, young and old, but men of all ages too. It has been written by a feminist, for the world of women who are striving ahead with battle axes on our tongues, ready to fight for two things: to be heard, and to be listened to. It is everything that a modern fairy-tale should be, and more. It banishes the Disney bubbles and cuts back to the gory core of the original tale, full of frightening monsters with a story of their own. Neverending praise should – and is – given to Louise O’Neill for a compelling page turner and a heroine who learns what true sacrifice is alongside finding herself.

Have you read The Surface Breaks? Do you enjoy reimaginings and twisted tales?

Love, Faye xo


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