2018 releases · YA

Retellings, Feminism, and Just Barely Below the Surface: The Surface Breaks by Louise O’Neill

Image result for the surface breaks louise o'neill“We are women. And women are warriors, after all.” 

When I first heard that there was a feminist retelling of The Little Mermaid, I got really excited. I enjoy retellings a lot, but I am kind of picky with them. I like to see elements of the original story, but I also really appreciate something fresh and original in the story and I like to see it separate itself from the original content. So I was excited to see how this retelling would pan out for me. And to be quite honest with you, I really love the cover, so it played a big part in me picking this up.

The Surface Breaks is a feminist retelling of The Little Mermaid, which focuses on Muirgen (or Gaia as her mother called her) who lives under the oppressive thumb of her father, The Sea King. She is deemed the prettiest of her sisters, so her father prances her around for her beauty. But she doesn’t feel like she belongs and yearns to find out what happened to her mother, even though her father claims that humans killed her.

as a retellingI found this to be a good retelling. It is a straight up retelling, with a lot of the original aspects of the story, but also with some added goodness. For example, there’s a rival tribe of a different species of mermaids, called The Rusalkas (which I believe is from Russian folklore), who are at war with The Sea King and who are led by Ceto, the Sea Witch. There are a lot of interesting points of the story like that, and they were used really well. So I think the concept of the story is really interesting, even though this wasn’t as original as I like my retellings to be. It’s a straight up retelling.

feministI also really enjoyed the feminist points the author was trying to make. For example, Ceto is a really powerful, plus size mermaid, who is really comfortable in her own skin and is sort of an “unruly” woman, which I really loved. There’s also a point in the story where our main character is reclaiming her voice (you already know The Little Mermaid loses her voice) and that was superbly done. Also, one of Muirgen’s sisters is sapphic (even though that wasn’t said explicitly on the page, but it’s made obvious by the text), and that sort of commentary was also interesting.

howeverHowever, this book did a thing I really dislike. This story is just used to convey this feminist message. What that means is that the story itself is fitted to the thing the author is trying to say, rather than the story having a proper grounding on its own. I didn’t feel anything for the characters, they were very bland and I did not feel particularly moved by the story itself. Moreover, the more of feminist writing I read, the more I am craving nuance and deep explorations of gender and feminism, and this just doesn’t offer that. While it’s definitely obvious what the author was trying to do, for me personally it didn’t make much of an impact. It’s by no means a fault of the book, it’s a personal preference of mine.

verdictI did think that this was good, and I would still recommend it. There were some shining points, I just wish the book went deeper and not remained so surface level (pun intended).

Final verdict: 3.5 stars

anthingtoadd2I would love to hear from you! Have you read this one? What were your thoughts on it? Let me know in the comments!


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25 thoughts on “Retellings, Feminism, and Just Barely Below the Surface: The Surface Breaks by Louise O’Neill

  1. Glad to read yer review matey! This book is on me ports for plunder list. I just recently read her book only ever yours and found that to be an extremely intense read. Her viewpoint of femininity is that book was stark and sad. I also found it hard to attach to specific characters of her book even if the writing overall was compelling. I am now interested in how the message worked in the mermaid retelliing. So I think I will still read this one and just keep yer warnings in mind. And a link to only ever yours is below if ye like. No pressure.
    x The Captain


    Liked by 2 people

  2. This is an amazing review! 💗

    I’ve been so excited to read this book, because feminism + retelling sound so good?? And the cover is so gorgeous, too. But I can totally see where you’re coming from with your criticism, and I’m definitely going into it somewhat more hesitantly now.

    I’m glad it was still enjoyable enough for you to give it 3.5 stars! 🙂

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Thank you so much, Lily! 💕 it sounds brilliant, and I think a lot of people will love this one, it just wasn’t a perfect match for me personally. I hope you love it more than I did.

      And yes, it was still good and I would still recommend it!


  3. I’ve been so on the fence about picking this up, because I adore Louise O’Neill but I don’t care a lot about The Little Mermaid. I think I’ve been convinced to give it a try but this review has also helped lower my expectations a bit, so thank you! Also, I just read Blood Water Paint by Joy McCullough and felt the EXACT same way about the story primarily being used to convey the author’s feminist message, and while I obviously agree with everything the author is saying the inability to integrate it into the story in an authentic way was driving me nuts. So, I very much know where you’re coming from with that criticism.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. I would still recommend it, but yeah, I would not go in with too high expectations, especially if you felt like that with Blood Water Paint. I read Blood Water Paint and felt EXACTLY like that. The main character did not feel like a person, she felt like a concept. I did like the writing in Blood Water Paint a bit more to this, but I also felt more engaged while reading this.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. “The main character did not feel like a person, she felt like a concept.” YES, exactly! Ugh. I am not going to be very nice to this book in my review. It’s one of those books where I feel like its overall importance is eclipsing its quality in the way a lot of people are assessing it… that’s not to say that you can’t have a personal reaction to it, obviously, but I also feel like a lot of people don’t want to critique an overtly feminist book like this? I feel like it might be the same way for The Surface Breaks. We can still be feminists and not like every feminist book ever written, people, especially ones that sacrifice narrative for ideology. That’s what feminist nonfiction is for!

        Liked by 1 person

      2. I can’t wait to read your review! And I completely agree, we tend to not criticize diverse books in general, which is a tough thing to navigate, but I think it’s important to acknowledge that yes this book is doing great things with its overall message, but not so great with its writing or characters or the narrative as a whole. And for me personally, The Surface Breaks wasn’t that revolutionary, even when it came to feminism.

        Liked by 1 person

      3. Absolutely! It’s so difficult to level any kind of critique against an ‘important’ book, but pointing out narrative failings obviously isn’t going to devalue whatever social justice merits the book may have. I wish I saw more reviews like yours that really dig into these kinds of books and have a proper discussion rather than just leaving it at ‘this has a feminist message and therefore it is a good book.’

        Liked by 1 person

  4. I had been forever teetering back and forth on whether or not to purchase this one (because I’m 3000% with you on that cover), and I’m glad I held off a bit. I’m super glad that it was shining on a lot of things, but I’m a bit worried about a few things you mentioned. Great review, and I’m still pretty excited to pick it up! 🙂


  5. Mm, excellent points! I do feel like whenever the author is gearing up solely to preach or convey a moral, they forget that there has to be context for the message be hammered home (the context being characters, world-building, etc.) I find that cover really beautiful though, and I enjoy retellings, so I might give it a shot when I’m in the mood. Terrific review! 🙂

    Liked by 2 people

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