Review: The Surface Breaks by Louise O’Neill

OUADT Rating: 5/5
OUADT recommends this book to:
Anyone who’s interested in fantastic creatures, even better if they are mermaid lovers. And to people who have an inclusive feminist mindset, not necessarily a subversive understanding of feminism (DISCLAIMER: book contains strong instances of patriarchy).


I turned the last page and all I could say was “wow”. And that’s not even enough to capture what I felt after I finished the last sentence of The Surface Breaks by Louise O’Neill.

Summary: Deep beneath the cold, stormy sea, Gaia is a mermaid who dreams of freedom from her controlling father. On her first swim to the surface, she is drawn towards a human boy. Gaia 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?

This book felt like a treat, even a reward, for myself. No, I’m serious. Today, I finished the pre-final draft of my master thesis on the feminist and transcultural complexity of the mermaid figure in different literary genres. And one of my findings was that mermaids have to use irrational means to break apart the phallogocentric order… I don’t want to bore you with my research but I just want to give you a taste of how exciting I was to read this re-writing of the little mermaid, which so neatly chimed in with one of my main interests in the mermaid figure: her objectification and suppression by men.

I really need to turn the novel inside out for criticsm, but I was slightly disappointed by the Sea Witch, called Ceto. I really enjoyed her unapologetic self-confidence and her exchanges with the little mermaid, but I found her character so intriguing that I wish it would have been explored a bit more.

If anything, this re-writing is filled with patriarchs. Firstly, there’s Gaia’s father who’s most satisfied when feared by his daughters. Then, there’s Gaia’s betrothed, Zale, who’s more than double her age, an overt sexist and a blood-thirsty tyrant. And lastly, there’s ungrateful Oliver, for whom Gaia sacrifies nearly everything. Most people argue that there are not enough nice men in the re-writing, and although I agree that the only two decent men are either side characters or dead, I don’t think that the gender disparity has been subverted.

O’Neill does not try to blame either gender; instead, her re-writing sheds light on different means of female suppression. From a distorted body image, to gay love, to female sexuality- the list of topics which O’Neill manages to bring in is impressively vast. And unfortunately, the limits of these topics go back to a white, patriarchal order.

Some readers don’t believe that the novel does justice to its feminist label because almost the entire narrative centres on Gaia’s suppression and patriarchal objectification. Again, I disagree. Feminism is not about subverting injustice; feminism begins when gender injustice is identified and brought to the fore. Also, we should keep in mind that this is a feminist reimagining of the little mermaid, and not a new feminist narrative. Accordingly, O’Neill infused the narrative with a feminist tone without completely deviating from Andersen’s original. Her poetics clearly show how wrongly the sea patriarch is treating his daughters. And for all the feminists craving great action, well there’s the ending (not going to say more at this point, #spoilerfree).

Apart from the feminist debate, the story is gripping and could easily be read in one sitting. The writing is light, but not simplistic, and sets the perfect tone for a fairy tale re-writing. Here’s one of my favourite passages:

I breathe in, and I can feel the notes trembling at the base of my throat, forming without any real effort. I open my mouth and the melody spills out, slithering through the water, turning everything it touches translucent.
The mer-folk look up at me, spellbound, the melody lacing us together as one. It has wound its way into their bodies, shivering through them. This is my gift, but unlike the much-admired symmetry of my face, this gift actually brings me joy.

Dear feminist critics, look at that last sentence. Isn’t it empowering to you?

Book details:
The Surface Breaks by Louise O’Neill
Published in 2018 by SCHOLASTIC
Available on Amazon

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