Review: The Surface Breaks by Louise O’Neill

OUADT Rating: 5/5
OUADT recommends this book to:
Anyone who’s interested in fantastic creatures, even better if they are mermaid lovers. And to people who have an inclusive feminist mindset, not necessarily a subversive understanding of feminism (DISCLAIMER: book contains strong instances of patriarchy).

35392365_10216796123321323_6844300470899441664_n

I turned the last page and all I could say was “wow”. And that’s not even enough to capture what I felt after I finished the last sentence of The Surface Breaks by Louise O’Neill.

Summary: Deep beneath the cold, stormy sea, Gaia is a mermaid who dreams of freedom from her controlling father. On her first swim to the surface, she is drawn towards a human boy. Gaia longs to join his carefree world, but how much will she have to sacrifice? What will it take for the little mermaid to find her voice?

This book felt like a treat, even a reward, for myself. No, I’m serious. Today, I finished the pre-final draft of my master thesis on the feminist and transcultural complexity of the mermaid figure in different literary genres. And one of my findings was that mermaids have to use irrational means to break apart the phallogocentric order… I don’t want to bore you with my research but I just want to give you a taste of how exciting I was to read this re-writing of the little mermaid, which so neatly chimed in with one of my main interests in the mermaid figure: her objectification and suppression by men.

I really need to turn the novel inside out for criticsm, but I was slightly disappointed by the Sea Witch, called Ceto. I really enjoyed her unapologetic self-confidence and her exchanges with the little mermaid, but I found her character so intriguing that I wish it would have been explored a bit more.

If anything, this re-writing is filled with patriarchs. Firstly, there’s Gaia’s father who’s most satisfied when feared by his daughters. Then, there’s Gaia’s betrothed, Zale, who’s more than double her age, an overt sexist and a blood-thirsty tyrant. And lastly, there’s ungrateful Oliver, for whom Gaia sacrifies nearly everything. Most people argue that there are not enough nice men in the re-writing, and although I agree that the only two decent men are either side characters or dead, I don’t think that the gender disparity has been subverted.

O’Neill does not try to blame either gender; instead, her re-writing sheds light on different means of female suppression. From a distorted body image, to gay love, to female sexuality- the list of topics which O’Neill manages to bring in is impressively vast. And unfortunately, the limits of these topics go back to a white, patriarchal order.

Some readers don’t believe that the novel does justice to its feminist label because almost the entire narrative centres on Gaia’s suppression and patriarchal objectification. Again, I disagree. Feminism is not about subverting injustice; feminism begins when gender injustice is identified and brought to the fore. Also, we should keep in mind that this is a feminist reimagining of the little mermaid, and not a new feminist narrative. Accordingly, O’Neill infused the narrative with a feminist tone without completely deviating from Andersen’s original. Her poetics clearly show how wrongly the sea patriarch is treating his daughters. And for all the feminists craving great action, well there’s the ending (not going to say more at this point, #spoilerfree).

Apart from the feminist debate, the story is gripping and could easily be read in one sitting. The writing is light, but not simplistic, and sets the perfect tone for a fairy tale re-writing. Here’s one of my favourite passages:

I breathe in, and I can feel the notes trembling at the base of my throat, forming without any real effort. I open my mouth and the melody spills out, slithering through the water, turning everything it touches translucent.
The mer-folk look up at me, spellbound, the melody lacing us together as one. It has wound its way into their bodies, shivering through them. This is my gift, but unlike the much-admired symmetry of my face, this gift actually brings me joy.

Dear feminist critics, look at that last sentence. Isn’t it empowering to you?

Book details:
The Surface Breaks by Louise O’Neill
Published in 2018 by SCHOLASTIC
Available on Amazon

Review: After Alice by Gregory Maguire

OUADT Rating: 2/5
OUADT recommends this book to: hardcore Alice in Wonderland fans

after alice

I’ve never come across someone who didn’t like Alice in Wonderland. Be it the original book by Lewis Carroll or the 2010 film version, with Johnny Depp’s legendary performance as mat hatter, Alice’s adventures still hold a place of fascination. That’s why I was even more intrigued to stumble across this re-writing by Gregory Maguire who, if you didn’t know, is also the author of Wicked. Yet, when I started reading it, I realised that my expectations had been way too high.

Summary: When Alice fell down the rabbit hole, she found Wonderland as rife with inconsistent rules and abrasive egos as the world she left behind. But how did Victorian Oxford react to Alice’s disappearance?

Gregory Maguire turns his imagination to the question of underworlds, undergrounds, underpinnings- and understandings of old and new, offering an inventive spin on Carroll’s enduring tale. Ada, a friend mentioned briefly in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, sets out to visit Alice but arrives a moment too late. Tumbling down the rabbit hole herself, she embarks on an odyssey to find Alice and bring her safely home from this surreal world below the world.

I don’t want to downplay how hard it must be to re-write such an iconic work. The author has all of my due respect for his bravery- even though I was not convinced by the outcome.

It took me quite some time to get into the writing. I really struggled with the language which is quite dense. Some sentences were overloaded with references and boring descriptions, which did not help to build this child-like imaginative world. The plot alternates between Ada’s adventures in Wonderland and the families that she and Alice left behind in Victorian England. To my surprise, I was more interested in the Victorian part than in Maguire’s depiction of Wonderland. It was only in the second part of the novel that I started to enjoy reading about Wonderland and simultaneously, my interest for the Victorian world waned.

I think this reading can be more enjoyable if one keeps the first sentence of the blurb in mind: When Alice fell down the rabbit hole, she found Wonderland as rife with inconsistent rules and abrasive egos as the world she left behind.

Indeed, Maguire gives an insight into nineteenth century Britain, with a focus on the early influence of Charles Darwin, the discourse surrounding slavery and the socially imposed categories for women. As for the latter,  the novel introduces the reader to Alice’s older sister, Lydia, who’s herself struggling with her identity as a fifteen-year-old Victorian lady. Unfortunately, I wished her character had more depth, instead of representing a selfish and partly vain adolescent.

Nonetheless, I didn’t give up on the book because of two points.

Firstly, Maguire’s fascination with poetics really paid off in Ada’s playful conversation with the White Knight. Secondly, the innocent but deeply caring encounter between Ada and Siam broke my heart. The passages were so strong and I wish Maguire had spent more time on developing their relationship.

The realtionship between the three children (Ada, Siam and Alice) was the strongest and most compelling aspect to the book and it finally zoomed in on the fascinating mind of children- which is so essential to Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.

Book Details:

After Alice by Gregory Maguire
Published in 2015 by HEADLINE
Available on Amazon

 

Review: the princess saves herself in this one by Amanda Lovelace

Writing a poetry review feels somewhat out of my comfort zone. From time to time, though, I really crave some verse. So with this post, I’m going to test the waters and do my first poetry review. Amanda Lovelace’s collection feels like a good start, especially since it is embedded in fairy tale tropes.

the princess saves herself in this one is a poetry collection dealing with quite heavy subject matter, including death, suicide, child abuse, bullying and cancer. The collection is divided into four parts: “the princess”, “the damsel”, “the queen” and “you”.

lovelace

Some poems in this book really struck me- for different reasons. Sometimes, I found myself reading lines over and over again and I really wanted to cherish them and have them imprinted somewhere in my mind. Yet, other poems did not speak to me at all and I suddenly found myself rushing down the page, in a haste to turn to the next one.

I was disappointed by the simplicity of this book. I believe that simple language is at the core of her writing, yet while it worked fantastically for some poems, it did not do much for others. There was sometimes a certain imbalance between the heaviness of the subject matter and the poetics used to express it. Also, even though the collection uses fairy tale figures- such as the princess and the damsel- I expected more nuanced fairy tale tropes. After reading certain poems, I was still searching for the fairy tale motif to seep through- in that sense, the fairy tale title of the collection might promise a bit more than can be found inside.

Nonetheless, some poems stood out because of their simplicity. I especially like the first poems in the “princess” category. In these poems, the fairy tale references came out the strongest and I liked the way Lovelace adapted them to her life experiences. Not many, but some of the significant tropes stretch through the entire collection and come back later in the book, making it one coherent piece.

I was also positively suprised by the pace of this collection. Unlike other poetry, I read it in one sitting and when I turned the last page, I really had the impression that I read a fairy tale. But there is no magic- it is realistic, plain and empowering for women and girls who are not blessed with a fairy godmother to get through hard times and yet, who manage to slay the dragons life presents them with.

Here is one of the poems that stayed with me for its plain language but resonating sweetness:

“if he was
my cup of tea,
then you are
my cup of coffee.

tea simply
isn’t enough
for me sometimes,

but coffee
can get me
through
anything.

-did i make you up?”

Freak shows, Fairytales and Alice Hoffman

32659813_10216543836254304_3623734491127742464_n

Fairytales are located inside the fantastic realm. They make the impossible possible and conceive of creatures that transcend our rational perceptions.

Human fascination with wondrous creatures did not always stay on page: freak shows were one way of showcasing those that did not correspond to what humanity classified as “normal”. In The Museum Of Extraordinary Things, Alice Hoffman has intertwined freak show, fairy tale tropes and a tragedy in women’s working past.

I firstly picked up this novel when I was doing research for my thesis because it sort of includes a mermaid figure- but I’ll come back to that later.

The narrative is set in 1911, in New York- more specifically on Coney Island. What might be well-known as a place of entertainment and amusement parks used to be a hot spot for freak shows. One of these freak show places is the Museum of Extraordinary Things under the leadership of Professor Sardie. His daughter, called Coralie Sardie, was born with webbed fingers. Coralie’s exploitative father sees a business opportunity in her disability and trains her to become one of his museum freaks. In the ice-cold currents of the Hudson River, Coralie is trained to hold her breath underwater for extremely long time. With a blue silk tail, she is put in a tank in the museum and embodies the museum’s “Human Mermaid”.

During one of her night swims in the Hudson River, Coralie stumbles across Eddie Cohen. Eddie is a photographer who has given up his former orthodox upbringing. After taking photos of the victims of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire, during which 146 employees died, Eddie becomes enmeshed in the case of a missing girl. His quest eventually leads him to the Museum of Extraordinary Things- and to Professor Sardie’s gruesome scientific experiments.

The mermaid establishes obvious links with the fairy tale genre. Coralie is of course not a real mermaid but her slight deformity really initiates the fake narrative around her existence. Mermaids can be read and analysed in numerous ways. However, I think that in this book, the mermaid figure emphasises two central themes:

Otherness and ostracising difference

At the end of the day, Coralie is just another girl. In today’s society, she would probably undergo surgery and her disability would go unnoticed. Yet, back in the 1900s her webbed fingers shaped her into a freak- a very problematic and offensive term. As a scientific fanatic, Coralie’s father exploits his daughter’s abnormality and does not help to shed positive light on her deformed hands.

This otherness is clearly felt by Coralie, who wishes for nothing more than to be a plain girl. Instead, she is trapped into that freak category, or as she puts it, into being

“her father’s daughter, a living wonder, an oddity no common man could ever understand” (33).

Freakshows objectified people with disabilities who often could not find work elsewhere. Visitors paid just to look at these people that were, essentially, only different to them.

The latest box-office hit The Greatest Showman , starring Hugh Jackman, probably instilled visual ideas of what these “freaks” looked like: women with beards, men with tattoos all over their bodies, people with missing limbs, or as shown in the novel, sword swallowers and conjoined twins. However, the cheeriness and empowering message of the musical version suppresses the not so joyful aspects of freak shows in history. Those people were exploited for being different, rather than celebrated. Their income depended on being stared at and made fun of- for hours. They were often treated like animals, like commodities that generated profits for people like Professor Sardie, or his non-fictional prototype, PT Barnum.

By bringing in the mermaid to this rather shameful past, Hoffman highlights an often-overlooked characteristic of the water woman. In literature and other forms of art, mermaids have a long history of being “othered”, being represented as female oddities that are situated somewhere between being a fish and woman; animal and human. The fascination with fairy tales resembles the fascination people held for freak shows, since they take place in a realm that counters conventionality. Figures like the mermaid problematise traditions and what we believe to be normal.

Unsurprisingly, out-spoken feminists like Angela Carter largely focus their writing on these worlds that offer alternative realities. Her works include fairy tales and circuses, and inevitably challenge questions of power and patriarchal values. Of course, by including the factory fire, Hoffman’s novel briefly brings in another large part of society which has been ostracised and suppressed. The now infamous fire killed 146 garment workers- out of which 123 were women. This tragedy was a big eye opener to show the lack of rights for women and workers and lead to the rise of unions.

The narratives we create define us

At the end of the day, it all boils down to the narrative we create. Coralie is nothing but a girl. Yet, all she was told and all she was trained to do, is to stand out. She has been raised within that discourse of difference, of otherness. Yet, imagine if she had parents who loved her, and told her that she was not an oddity. She might have perceived herself as an entirely different girl.

Same goes for these so-called freak shows. You only need to look back to how Barnum’s wonders were promoted: African people were advertised as “STRANGE AND SAVAGE TRIBES”. This shows that it was not what the exhibits looked like but more what the narratives, the words, and the setting shaped them into. The people shown in these freak shows were often feared not because of their disabilities or their looks, but rather because of the visual effects and narratives that surrounded them.

I think that’s something to keep in mind. People tend towards pre-figured, ready-made opinions about what is “different” before they actually come face to face with it. The narratives we create can be dangerous and can potentially offer fertile ground for racism and bigotry.

But, to end on a happier note, there’s also a positive drive in these narratives that we create. To a certain extent, it is what we find in dreams and our moments of visualisation. Every narrative starts somewhere. Often on a small scale, in a confined room, which might as well be inside our heads. But when that narrative is given attention and is told over and over again, then it might even reach the bigger crowds and somehow gain momentum. And that’s perhaps what The Greatest Showman tried to do, as the film’s theme song says:

“I am brave, I am bruised, I am who I’m meant to be- this is me.”

Nomatter how cheesy this sounds, if such lines or narratives are perpetuated, then we might not even be on such a gloomy path.

I know- I’m definitely deviating from the story here. But as you can see, there is a strong connection between fairytales and freak shows. Both have generated narratives of people or even animals that do not support the norm, or what we have come to believe stands for the norm. And I guess that’s why I was so intrigued by Alice Hoffman’s novel.

Other Circus/ Freak Show Recommendations:

Nights at the Circus by Angela Carter

Tipping the Velvet by Sarah Waters

Water for Elephants by Sara Gruen

Review: The Mermaid and Mrs Hancock (spoiler-free)

DSC00634 (2)

Next week on 23 April, the short list of the Women’s Prize for Fiction 2018 will be announced! I’m so happy that one of my favourite reads of this year is featured on the long list: The Mermaid and Mrs Hancock by Imogen Hermes Gowar.

To be entirely honest, I was first and foremost attracted to the book because of its sparkly cover that mixes eighteenth century silks with mermaid tails. And secondly, because I was still on the hunt for a suitable primary reading for my thesis. Even if I have a secret preference for short books, I devoured the 486 pages.

The story takes place in raw Georgian London. Jonah Hancock, a merchant from Deptford, is given a mermaid corpse in exchange for one of his ships. With strong links to showman entertainments, the mermaid becomes the new marvel of London and Mr Hancock is overflown with wealth. Mrs Chappell, the matriarchal owner of an elite brothel in West London, hires the mermaid to showcase at one of her opulent parties. During the party, Mr Hancock encounters the beautiful Angelica Neal, a recent widow and former courtesan in Mrs Chappell’s salon.

Apart from merging two contrasting parts of Georgian London, I absolutely adored how Gowar brought in the mermaid. Unlike one might expect, the mermaid(s) does not take an active role in the narrative. The first mermaid is a carcass and the second mermaid appears to be more of a conceptual entity than a creature. Nonetheless, her presence deeply impacts the characters’ moods and even pushes them to undergo a catharsic awakening, as it were.

Gowar helped to construct a new understanding of the mermaid which does not subscribe to an objectification of the female ideal- which we so often encounter in other rewritings. For once, it’s not about her bare breasts, long hair and big eyes. There are, though, highly sexualised mermaids in Mrs Chappell’s brothel. Yet, it should be clear to the reader, or at least I read these eroticised women as a sarcastic parade of men’s constructed feminine ideals.

The second “real” mermaid that enters the scene encompasses something that is intangible to the human, rational mind- and yet, Gowar somehow manages to capture it with her words…

My only problem with the book was the pacing. Some chapters felt a bit aimlessly constructed, whereas towards the end of the novel, I found myself craving for more.

An outstanding strength is Gowar’s poetic writing. The narrative is a balm for every word artist. The brief melodious interludes which appear to be mermaid songs and a plurality of female echoes resonate from afar and are not really part of the narrative, although, somehow they seem to align with other mermaids in the deep waters.

If you’re looking for an elegant historical fiction that convinces with its vivid historical details and eloquent language and picks up one of my favourite fairy tale figures, this is my top pick for you!

I wish you a happily ever after reading experience,

Laury