Book Reviews, YA book reviews

The Surface Breaks by Louise O’Neill



My Rating ~ Five stars


RELEASED: 3 May 2018

Publisher: Scholastic

Format: Hardback


Deep beneath the sea, off the cold Irish coast, Gaia is a young mermaid who dreams of freedom from her controlling father. On her first swim to the surface, she is drawn towards a human boy. She 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? Hans Christian Andersen’s original fairy tale is reimagined through a searing feminist lens, with the stunning, scalpel-sharp writing and world building that has won Louise her legions of devoted fans. A book with the darkest of undercurrents, full of rage and rallying cries: storytelling at its most spellbinding




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Gaia is the Sea King’s youngest daughter. His most beautiful and prized daughter. She lives under the sea with her sisters and Grandmother in an oppressive patriarchal kingdom, where her father demands his daughters are beautiful, obedient and quiet.

The mermaid sisters have been told their mother abandoned them on Gaia’s first birthday.  Obsessed with the human world, she made her way to the surface one too many times and was captured, presumed dead.  Gaia is just turning 15, the age the mermaids are allowed to break the surface to take a glimpse at the world above (as long as they return to the sea kingdom and never want to go the surface again.  After all, it’s how their mother lost her life).  When Gaia visits the surface, she happens to witness a stormy ship wreck and saves the life of one of the humans boys.   The Sea King has betrothed Gaia to a cruel warrior mer-man and they are to be bonded on her next birthday.  She would rather die than spend her life with this man, but her father’s word is law.

With her sixteenth birthday looming, in desperation and believing she is in love with the boy she saved, Gaia visits the feared Sea Witch to beg her for human legs and a life above the sea.  The Sea Witch grants her wish, for a price, and she has one month to convince the boy to fall in love with her.  Once on land and in the boys home, she starts to wonder if she’s made a terrible mistake.

I loved this book.  Absolutely loved it.  I have never read the Hans Christian Anderson Little Mermaid story, my only experience of the tale comes from the Disney version (Something I keep meaning to rectify!) but I understand the Hans version is quite a dark story.  This retelling is definitely dark.  There are themes of sexual assault, domestic abuse, violence and sexual harassment.  Comments from the Sea King, insinuating if Gaia wasn’t his daughter he would take her for himself, made my skin crawl.  The way all females are treated in the story is rage inducing, and meant to incite those feelings.   The way the Sea King controls his daughters, by denying them education, a voice to express opinions and even ensuring they are pitted against each other, competing for his love made for powerful feelings about the awful emotional abuse they endured.

Because I’ve only experienced the sappy Disney version of the story, I was almost dismayed by the insta-love I thought was happening when Gaia first saw Oliver, the boy she had rescued.  So I really enjoyed, in a heart-wrenching way, the path the story ended up taking.

I found the whole story fast paced, and I even enjoyed the change of style, from fantasy fairytale under the sea, to the life of brash, spoiled college boys on land.  The messages in the story are not subtle, and that makes for confronting reading in some places.  I love stories that make me have all the feelings – and Louise O’Neill managed to hand me rage, pity, frustration, sympathy and righteousness all in one book!



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Photo via my Instagram account – Bookbookowl


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