Two Novels: ‘The Surface Breaks’ and ‘The Householder’

The Surface Breaks by Louise O’Neill *** 9781407185538
I have read a couple of Louise O’Neill’s to date, and really enjoy her writing style. She tackles a lot of important topics, particularly with regard to young women. I thought, on the surface of it, that The Surface Breaks would be rather different; it is, after all, a retelling of Hans Christian Andersen’s beguiling fairytale ‘The Little Mermaid’. However, O’Neill has managed to suffuse it with a lot of affecting issues.

Whilst I found this, and the way in which she tackled the story, interesting, I found that there was no subtlety whatsoever to it. From the first, feminism and the way in which the mermaid protagonist of her story is so oppressed, is explicitly mentioned; this continues throughout the book, and becomes a little repetitive at times. The narrator constantly questions herself, often asking herself the same things over and over again. As I read further on, the cliched characters and roles began to grate on me somewhat.

Elements of the original story were well interpreted and incorporated, but I found parts of it were executed far better than others. The Surface Breaks feels rather drawn out; there was perhaps a little too much build-up to the time at which she gains legs and loses her voice, which could have been edited for greater effect. O’Neill, whilst retaining the core ideas of Andersen’s stories, does manage to bring the story up to date. However, the novel is not quite as good as I felt it could have been.


9780393008517The Householder by Ruth Prawer Jhabvala ***
The Sunday Times calls Ruth Prawer Jhabvala ‘a writer of genius…  a writer of world class – a master story teller.’  Seeing that she has been on my radar for years, and I have read such praise as the above on many an occasion, it seems odd that it has taken me such a long time to get around to actually reading her work.  Whilst I didn’t love The Householder I’m so pleased I finally have an idea of her themes and writing style.

First published in 1960, The Householder is an ‘appealing story of a young schoolteacher trying to come to terms with marriage and maturity’, which is ‘much more than a highly comic vignette of a particular society – it is also a reflection of a universal experience.’  Prem is our protagonist, a young man who is ‘not too good at enforcing discipline’ in his role as Hindi teacher in a boy’s college.  He has recently married a woman named Indu, in a relationship arranged by his parents; he barely knows her, and feels adrift in their new home in Delhi.  Indu is also pregnant, something which is ‘a terrible embarrassment for him.  Now everybody would know what he did with her at night in the dark…’.

Prem is almost constantly at odds with himself; his life is not shaping up to be following the same course which he had imagined so vividly, and try as he might, he is unable to change it.  He cannot connect with his wife, no matter how hard he tries: ‘He felt so alone and lonely, shut up in this small ugly flat with Indu who cried by herself in the sitting-room while he had to lie and cry by himself in the bedroom.’  Prem is, essentially, at a point of crisis in his life.  Whilst I did not find him a believable protagonist, he is both believable and understandable in his thoughts and actions.

The way in which Jhabvala writes about Indian society is fascinating, particularly with regard to Prem; despite having little disposable income, he feels that he has to keep a servant-boy to maintain his public appearance.   Jhabvala deftly sets scenes, and gives one a feel for each of her characters in just a couple of sentences.  Her prose has a wonderful ease to it.  As a character study, The Householder is fascinating, but I did find that due to its rendering into the form of a novella, some important themes remained relatively unexplored.  From the outset, I thought that this would be a four-star read, but the ending does feel a little too rushed to fit with the quiet patience which the rest of the story has.  The Householder is unarguably transporting, however, and I look forward to visiting India again with Jhabvala very soon.

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