The Surface Breaks

Louise O’Neill’s reimagining of the Little Mermaid goes past the fairytale filter most of us have inherited from the 1990s cartoon and restores the original grit (and sometimes downright sinister touch) of Andersen’s original tale.

The premise is the same: Gaia doesn’t fit in her father’s kingdom and dreams of escaping to the world beyond the surface. When a storm breaks and Gaia gets her first glimpse of a human, fate’s trap is set into motion. In this version though, the little mermaid’s sacrifice is a painful one as each step she takes on earth feels like the stabbing of a sharp knife. Along the way, Gaia’s body is mutilated, her voice taken away and her heart broken into pieces.

Louise O’Neill’s Young Adult tale is a subtle and clever feminist take on the classic, delving into important issues such as female objectification and silencing, as well as teenagehood and consent. The depiction of the under-the-sea kingdom as an oppressing patriarchy, and an entirely novel approach to the sea-witch character were most appreciated and thought-provoking additions. Gaia’s quest for the truth about her estranged mother, her outlook on her grandmother as a wise but silenced mermaid and the strained links which bind her to her sisters were definite highlights of this retelling which breaks away from the traditional focus on romance to look at female relationships.

If you are looking for a ‘and they lived happily ever after’ ending, you will – thankfully − not find it here.