FICTION: A MERMAID AWAKENS

Published September 30, 2018
The mermaid protagonist has been raised to believe her purpose in life is to be beautiful, charming and submissive, but she wants more. Unfortunately, when she falls for a human, she discovers that even love is not all it’s cracked up to be
The mermaid protagonist has been raised to believe her purpose in life is to be beautiful, charming and submissive, but she wants more. Unfortunately, when she falls for a human, she discovers that even love is not all it’s cracked up to be

Hans Christian Anderson’s The Little Mermaid is taken to task by Louise O’Neill in The Surface Breaks, a novel very much about the same little mermaid who falls in love with a human and gives up everything for him, but also a novel about a young woman finding her own agency in the face of a lifetime of being brainwashed into compliance by a toxic patriarchal system.

O’Neill’s mermaid is Gaia, the youngest of mermaid royalty and, of course, the most beautiful. The sea king has told his daughters many times that their mother was hunted and murdered by humans, and so they must remain safely ensconced under the sea, behaving themselves by focusing on remaining pretty, slim, quiet and charming — the only things required of a young mermaid. Their husbands will be chosen for them based on political or military alliances, their lives set out and controlled. But Gaia longs for more and wants desperately to be free of the sleazy, much older merman who is her intended. She isn’t the brightest half-fish in the sea, though, and believes very much in love at first sight and such. So when she falls for a young human she rescues from a yacht in a storm, she is willing to sacrifice her very self to be with him. Her desire to live on the surface is visceral and all encompassing: “I lie there, imagining the phantom legs that I know must be trapped inside of me. I picture them, stretching, pushing, ripping my tail apart. Craving the earth beneath them, solid.”

Gaia wants Oliver, but Oliver wants the life he led before the accident. He is rich, superficial, spoilt and — as Gaia and the reader soon see — so not worth the trouble. Plus, his family seems to have a complicated history with the sea; a troubling mystery that his mother is certain Gaia is associated with. This is not your Disney aqua princess happily ever-after; this is an uncomfortable, visceral look at obsessive ‘love’ and the suppression of young women in a deeply misogynistic society. O’Neill is clear: the (mer)maid has been sexually objectified, then controlled and suppressed by men. “A mermaid or a monster? What is the difference?” Gaia asks, realising soon that the difference lies in whether the mermaid has any agency over her own voice or not, any power of her own or not. O’Neill brings to the surface many aspects of society that readers will immediately recognise — and shudder when faced with. Whether it’s the truth bombs detonated by Ceto the sea witch, or the mansplaining that fills the high-flying parties at Oliver’s estate, or Gaia’s grandmother’s ‘wisdom’ about how all young girls must remain pretty and silent: at every instance that she can, O’Neill slaps us in the face with wave after wave of reminders that ours is a world full to bursting with patriarchal, misogynistic nonsense and that any woman who has refuted it, rebelled against ancient societal stereotypes and stepped away from them entirely has been seen as a pariah.

A feminist retelling of a popular children’s story turns it on its head

Ceto, the sea witch in all her glory, is by far the most arresting of O’Neill’s characters. She is everything Gaia is not, everything Gaia has been told is wrong, with a “tail so black that is dissolves into the gloomy sea so she looks like a floating torso. Skin pale, and so much of it — rolling into ruffs of flesh around her neck, spooling around her waist.” Gaia “did not know such a body was even allowed to exist”, and yet there she is. Ceto. The speaker of ugly truths, who explains to the little mermaid that “It is your father who has insisted on calling me a ‘witch’. That is simply a term that men give to women who are not afraid of them, women who refuse to do as they are told.” Ceto is the one who hints to the little mermaid that not everything she has been taught about mermaids (and so, women) is binary — “A mother wanting a life of her own is not the same thing as abandoning her children” — and that toxic masculinity is indeed damaging to all genders: “For what happens to men who are not allowed to be afraid? They become angry. Vicious. Feral.”

Gaia has been raised to believe her only worth is what a man allots to her, that her only happiness may come from a man. She seeks out Oliver because she thinks his love will be enough to make her whole, desperate to believe that having him will make up for everything else she has given up: her sisters, her home, her voice, even her physical comfort. She gives up her voice for the man she thinks will save her with love, a man for whom she tears herself asunder, and is then unable to express herself in any way and to anyone. But why does a woman need a voice if she can get a man to take care of her, and speak for her? As always, O’Neill wants us to question even the things we know the answers to.

O’Neill plots her tale impeccably, with a steady, strong pace. She pulls no punches, but then, she never has. There are echoes of her first — and very arresting — novel Only Ever Yours in The Surface Breaks (both of which are touted as Young Adult novels, though such classifications can be meaningless), but this book makes sure to touch on far more of the relevant feminist discussions taking place currently. Too many for one book? Perhaps, because no matter how relevant they all are, they can’t each be explored at length. But then not every reader will pick up on each of the references either, though it would be a good way to have younger readers start to question society in ways they may not already do. These are didactic lessons some readers may already know, but that doesn’t mean they’re not worth hearing again.

The reviewer is a book critic, editor of The Djinn Falls in Love & Other Stories and hosts the interview podcast Midnight in Karachi at Tor.com

The Surface Breaks
By Louise O’Neill
Scholastic, US
ISBN: 978-1407185538
320pp.

Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, September 30th, 2018

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