It was the summer of 2016 when Lauren Fortune, the fiction editorial director at Scholastic publishing, contacted me, asking if I would be interested in writing a feminist re-imagining of The Little Mermaid, writes Louise O’Neill.
Given that I was, at that point, knee deep in writing my third novel, the logical answer should have been an empathetic no. And yet, I hesitated. Discussing it with my parents, I listed out the numerous reasons why I should turn down the offer, and they nodded, but then they hesitated too. “What are you thinking?” I asked them and they replied in unison. “It’s The Little Mermaid,” they said. “This is your story.”
I had been a dreamy child, intense; wild with imagination and fits of fancy. For the first four years of my life, we lived right on Inchydoney Beach and I was half human child, half sea creature. With my hair tangled with salt and sand crusted under my finger nails, my sister and I roamed the dunes and searched the caves for pirate treasure. And then there was the sea. I would swim for hours until my mother forced me back into the house, blue-tinged and teeth chattering, clutching pieces of seaweed and broken shells like a talisman. I would spend the rest of the evening staring out the window, wondering at its unfathomable depths. I wanted to return to the waves, where I belonged.
When the Disney version of The Little Mermaid was released in 1989, in some inexplicable way, I finally felt seen. Every little girl I knew also loved the movie; it was the VHS of choice at every birthday party for the next couple of years until Beauty and the Beast knocked it off its pedestal. Belle and her bookish ways appealed to me greatly but it was Ariel, that dreamy, curious, red-head, who was a mirror of me in ways that I couldn’t even begin to articulate at such a young age.
When I was older and looking at the tale with a more critical eye, it was easier to understand my kinship with Ariel. I had always felt like a changeling, never quite belonging and yet I was trapped; by geography and birth and so many other things outside of my control. I was thirsting, like the little mermaid, to be free. Of course, as I examined both the Disney movie and the original fairytale with a more mature sensibility, it also became increasingly clear to me that both were deeply problematic from a feminist perspective. We talk about the silencing of women in society, something I’ve also explored in Only Ever Yours and Almost Love, and yet here was a woman who literally gives up her voice in order to be in a relationship. She sacrifices her family, her home; she mutilates her body in order to be more attractive to the man that she barely knows.
As a young woman starving myself to the point of hospitalisation in order to meet society’s arbitrary standards of beauty, the story never felt more tragically relevant to me. I began to wonder about the impact such stories had on me as a small child. Had my love for Disney and Barbies and Sweet Valley High contributed to my desperate desire to be thin and beautiful? And if it had, how could I ensure that the next generation of girls coming of age wouldn’t fall prey to the same dangers? That sense of responsibility was a driving force behind Only Ever Yours and I often say that I wrote it because it was the book that I wish I had read as a teenager. In some strange way, I believe that I needed write The Surface Breaks as an attempt to make amends to my younger self for all the pain that I inflicted upon her.
I wanted to reclaim the little mermaid. I refused to see her as passive or a victim, I would show her for what she really is — a girl. A girl who wanted more than the world thought she was worthy of. A girl who wanted to take up more space in the world, not less. My little mermaid, I decided, would be vulnerable and a little odd. She would be brave and loyal but she would be mad with yearning and longing. She would not be perfect (for who is?) and that would be ok. She would be complex and complicated; a young woman trying to figure out who she is and what she wants. My mermaid would be someone who was just trying to survive, like all of us are.
The Surface Breaks is out now, and of the books I have written in my career, this has been the greatest joy. I had so much fun with the story, relishing every minute of the extensive research that I undertook into mermaid myths and legends across the globe. But it was so much more than that. With each word that I wrote, I felt as if I was coming back to my true self, the self that I had cut off at the knees when it became necessary to fit in, to be the same as everyone else rather than revelling in my weirdness. In my mind’s eye, I saw myself as a small child, staring at the horizon with a determination that must have often seemed unnatural to those around me, as I prayed that I could someday return to what I imagined to be my primordial home.
For I am the sea and the sea is me.
READ: I am on the judging panel for the YA Book Prize, an award given to the best young adult novel written by an author living in the UK or Ireland. If you’re looking for a book to buy the teenager in your life then you won’t go wrong by perusing the shortlist for inspiration.
WATCH: I am obsessed with Dear White People on Netflix, a scathing and hilarious exploration of race set in a fictional American university. The second series was released this month — get on it.
- Louise O’ Neill is the author of Only Ever Yours, Asking For It, Almost Love, and The Surface Breaks
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