As a child, “The Little Mermaid” was a favorite tale of mine, until I read the original by Hans Christian Anderson: mermaid falls in-love at first sight, sacrifices her voice to become human, but is painfully disappointed with her decision both physically and emotionally. Disney’s distortion always bothered me thereafter, and I could never find peace with the original either. Louise O’Neill‘s The Surface Breaks is a retelling that is both heartbreaking and satisfying.
Review: The Surface Breaks by Louise O’Neill
A fairytale retelling that rips the wings off a sprite.
I love fairytales. I do. But, I also appreciate insightful fairytale retellings because the original stories can be a bit simplistic in the happily ever after and characterization of women. Women who typically fall in-love at first sight and lure men in with beauty — their sole commodity. The Surface Breaks covers all the aspects that I ever found wrong with “The Little Mermaid” story.
In O’Neill’s version, Gaia is a mentally and physically abused little mermaid. She lives in a world dominated by males, who want their women silent, beautiful, submissive… It’s too bad that depiction is NOT entirely fictional today. This chauvinistic under-the-sea world is what drives Gaia to hope for a better life out of the ocean. Unfortunately, Gaia soon realizes that men aren’t necessarily different on land.
Gaia runs away from her abusive home. She hopes to find love and a better life with a human man. Unfortunately, she can’t recognize real love or a good man because she’s never met one before.
Poor Gaia unwittingly sacrifices her voice and life for a boy she’s seen once. Her decision mirrors the common misconception many have made in their desperation for a crush, miscalculating their lust for love and willing to do anything for it. Her decision is based heavily on hopes she’s gleaned from underwater fairytales about true love.
One of the best metaphors in the story is Gaia’s comparison to drowning on land. Being silenced without the use of her tongue, she feels as if she’s suffocating on her unspoken words as males dominate the conversations, and women struggle for respect. The story and concepts aren’t new, but the presentation and symbolism of The Surface Breaks feels eye-opening.
Narrator of The Surface Breaks: Amy Shiels
Ireland is the story’s setting, so Amy Shiels speaks in an Irish accent that is both clear and enchanting. I enjoyed her storytelling abilities, though I did find it hard to distinguish some areas that switched from internal monologue to speech.
All in all, I would listen to Shiels again.
My love for mermaids drew me to “The Little Mermaid”as a child. But, my desire for a happy ending always left me feeling unsatisfied. The Surface Breaks is the modern version addressing inequality, growth, self-appreciation, sexism, and so much more. The adult in me is finally content.
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