I was expecting to write my review of The Bullet That Missed today but, as I’ve been struck down with a cold, I still have a few pages to go. So, I did what I always do in these situations and borrowed an audiobook from the library. Which one? The first one I could find that I could listen to during my shift. It’s a system that hasn’t always worked for my but it has also opened my eyes to some great books I wouldn’t have read normally. This book isn’t one that I would have cared about. Young adult fantasy isn’t my thing anyway but especially when it’s the retelling of a fairy tale. Although, it’s a feminist retelling and I’m always up for teaching young women to speak up for themselves.
I’m always unsure of feminist retellings of fairy stories. I can understand the appeal because fairy tales have become a tool for the patriarchy. They also started as feminist critiques of a patriarchal society, so it’s a way to recapture that element. I get it. It’s just the fairy tales that are so often retold tend to be the least feminist and the retellings tend to be restricted by the original text. With The Little Mermaid, there was always going to be the tricky issue of a young mermaid giving up her tail for a man she only sees once. So, I was interested to see how successful it would be. I wasn’t convinced it would be that great.
It didn’t help that I’ve not been wowed by anything I’ve read by Louise O’Neill. In the past, I have found her books to be cliched and obvious. In The Surface Breaks, subtlety isn’t the word of the day. It’s probably not an issue but it just lacked any real finesse. I think it’s great that the Little Mermaid has a name in this story. Well, I guess she has 3 but never mind. Her main name is Gaia, symbolising how drawn she is to the human world. Again, it’s not exactly subtle but I’ll let it go. The problem is, she’s a pretty dull character. She’s very one-dimensional and I didn’t care about her story.
Had O’Neill really wanted to write a feminist reimagining of the Hans Christian Andersen tale, she should have focused on Ceto, the sea witch. She was by far the most interesting character in the whole story and she should have been given more time. She had depth and made some powerful statements. Ceto is the most inspiring character in the entire thing but she’s only in the story briefly. For the most part, we’re just watching Gaia moping about. Not the story I was promised.
Was the reimagining hampered by the original story? To some extent it was. I know that O’Neill was trying to make a point about women being raised to become wives but I feel like there was still a lot of time spent on Gaia sacrificing everything for a man she didn’t know. So much time that the feminist awakening is dealt with very quickly at the end of the book. I was so hopeful that the plot would go in a different direction. That she would go on an adventure to find her mother. Or that she would find a new purpose. But no, she just kept on trying to chase the handsome man for about 90% of the book.
It seems to me that Louise O’Neill thought she could easily turn this into a feminist retelling by constantly talking about beauty standards and shoving in as much sexual assault as possible. These are major issues affecting so many women but I don’t think they’re handled in the right way. Especially the examples of sexual assault which just feel tacked on. Almost as though they wanted to make the story a bit darker and edgy. There’s no conviction behind them. There’s a lack of conviction with the whole feminist concept. For the most part, the book just points out terrible things about our society. There’s no discourse here. The end is mental, messy and problematic but at least there is some evidence of empowerment. It’s just too little too late.