Ok, prepare yourselves my friends. I have a lot of thoughts on this one. Before I start ranting, take a look at the synopsis…
What the book was about
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.
What I thought of it
So before I start, I want to emphasise that this review is by no means a personal attack on the author. I appreciate that a lot of hard work will have gone into this book; sadly, it just didn’t work for me.
I found The Surface Breaks to be seriously problematic. O’Neill raises a number of topical issues but unfortunately, I didn’t feel as though any of them were afforded the attention or respect they deserved. The book features misogyny in SPADES, sexual predation and abuse, oppression of women and minority groups, fat-shaming, the notion that homosexuality can be ‘cured’ – I could continue. While I realise that these are very real issues that are faced by people all too often in this day and age, I did NOT like the way they were presented in this book. It felt forced and I’d even go so far as to use the word disrespectful. If an author is going to raise issues like this, it needs to be done sensitively and should ideally leave the reader feeling hopeful and empowered, not seething with anger. There was no uplifting message that I could take away from this book. Maybe the ending tried but it was too little too late for me and, by that point, I had completely stopped caring. I was hurting and feeling frustrated.
Putting aside the content for a moment and looking at the more technical aspects, I didn’t really find the book all that well-written. The blurb promises sharp writing and stunning world-building – neither of which was delivered. The writing was average; there were a couple of nice turns of phrase at the beginning but nothing that made me do heart-eyes as I would have expected from a mermaid book! And the world-building was distinctly lacking. None of the politics of the world were explained and the author seriously missed the opportunity to indulge in the kind of opulent descriptions of this underwater kingdom that I wanted/expected.
And now to the characters. They felt paper-thin with no understandable motivations for their actions. The protagonist Gaia was the most annoying character I’ve come across in recent literature. The insta-love was INSANE and so unrealistic; I get that the author was actually being quite faithful to the original story in this respect and I don’t know if she was attempting to poke fun at the concept but the whole thing just felt ridiculous. I was so irritated by Gaia and the nonchalance with which she threw everything away. She took everything for granted all for a boy she’d seen ONCE.
Which brings me to Oliver. His character was so weak and there were huge chunks of the novel where he wasn’t even present?! I did not understand the choice to have him missing half the time. The scenes where he did feature felt jarringly contemporary in comparison to the first half of the novel which took place under the sea; Oliver behaved like a spoilt little rich boy, drinking and acting entitled. Any attempts at explaining his behaviour were feeble. The author could have done so much more with his character (and his mother, for that matter). There wasn’t a single character that wasn’t a cardboard cut-out and I just didn’t care about any of them.
I’m going to wrap this up now because I’ve ranted long enough. My final feeling on this book is one of betrayal; a feminist retelling of The Little Mermaid could have been a dream-come-true and instead, I got a nightmare. So much about this book is hurtful and I feel like there will not be a single group of people whom the author will not offend with it. By all means, call out the BS we face in society – but don’t just leave it sitting there and making us feel bad. Give us something hopeful to take away from it. This book might have a beautiful cover but it masks some very UN-beautiful content. I feel distinctly let down.
Has anyone else read this one? Did you pick up on any of these issues? What other books have lured you in with a pretty cover and then disappointed you?