The best known version of 'The Little Mermaid' is probably the Disney cartoon which is a greatly softened version of the fairy tale, written by Hans Christian Anderson, first published in 1837. Louise O'Neill's re-telling is much closer to the original- a gritty, thought-provoking re-imagining which does not make entirely comfortable reading.
Gaia is the youngest daughter of the Sea King, a harsh father who demands perfection from his daughters, offering only criticism and violence in return. Seen as objects to be controlled, each daughter is expected to be beautiful, silent and conforming. Gaia is betrothed to an older merman, Zale, an arrogant war-obsessed bully, who sees her merely as a possession.
As the 'favourite' daughter, Gaia finds herself isolated from her sisters, sleeping alone in her roofless tower. Here she dreams of her mother (who, she has been told, was captured and killed by humans), questions the power and control of men and dreams of the land above the sea. On her fifteenth birthday, she is allowed to make a visit to the surface where she sees- and rescues- the 'love of her life'. As with the Anderson original, things do not go well.
Louise O'Neill is a powerful writer. She challenges the reader to question and see things in different ways. In order to escape the controlling men in her life, Gaia pins her hopes on another, willing to sacrifice everything for him. Abuse by men exists in the world on land as well as those under the sea as Gaia finds to her cost. Although she believes she has challenged the way mermen treat mermaids and has escaped her fate, she applies many of the standards and ideas she has been indoctrinated with to her new life on land, failing to truly break free.
In 'The Surface Breaks', the sea witch- although she does not call herself this- is a really wonderful character who lives by her own rules, challenging the 'authority' of the Sea King and indeed any man who tries to control women.
The book makes uncomfortable reading at times, but is compelling. Louise O'Neill does not soften or shy away from the 'difficult' or unpleasant, provokes thought and discussion through her incisive writing.
The Surface Breaks Louise O'Neill
Scholastic ISBN: 978-1407185538
You can read our review of 'Asking for It' here.