Title: An Untamed State
Author: Roxane Gay
Release date: May 2014
Publisher: Grove Press/Black Cat
Rating: 5 out of 5
An Untamed State, Roxane Gay’s second novel, is not a passive read. It’s painful and viciously gorgeous and never veers away from the worst parts of this world. It demands something of you. But in return it gives you an immeasurable gift—an appreciation for the beauty among madness, hope after unimaginable pain. If you offer yourself up to the experience of reading An Untamed State, you will be rewarded.
In spare prose and stunning simplicity, Roxane Gay delivers a fairy tale gone, as so many fairy tales do, wrong:
Once upon a time, in a far-off land, I was kidnapped by a gang of fearless yet terrified young men with so much impossible hope beating inside their bodies it burned their very skin and strengthened their will right through their bones.
Mireille has a strange empathy for these kidnappers. She understands the want in them, the fearless hunger, even as she describes the unspeakable atrocities they commit against her.
Mireille is a dual citizen of the United States and Haiti, and she is kidnapped from her car as her husband and toddler son watch, helpless to save her. Her father, a wealthy and prominent Haitian, is idealistic in his own way; he refuses to cave in to the kidnappers’ demands, just as Mireille knew he would. At one point, Mireille recounts the time her father instructed her never to show weakness in front of her American classmates:
He said, “There is no room for emotion if you want to succeed in this country.” He patted my thigh and said, “What happened to you was unfair and unkind but ambition is the only emotion that matters. You must learn this now.”
It’s a lesson he seems intent on teaching her even in her adulthood, as she suffers at the hands of her kidnappers. It’s a message he wants to send to the entire world: If you try hard enough, if you build enough walls, no one can ever reach you.
But Mireille does suffer. She is raped and beaten and sliced apart, and she retreats into a tiny part of herself in order to save what remains.
I normally steer clear of such graphic violence, for a reason—because it seems so senselessly sensationalized. So much violence, especially on TV, feels careless, thrown into a plot casually. Not so in An Untamed State. The violence is woven into the fabric of Mireille’s story; a terrible, heart-rending thing happens to her and she must deal with its crippling aftermath. There is no shying away, no glossing over, and that is as it should be. The pain is unavoidable.
The theme of home—of belonging—permeates the novel. Mireille observes early on in the telling of her story:
There are three Haitis—the country Americans know and the country Haitians know and the country I thought I knew. In the back of the Land Cruiser the day I was kidnapped, I was in a new country altogether. I was not home or I was and did not know it yet.
Before her kidnapping, Mireille exists in a strange state while in Haiti—she is aware of her vulnerability, as an upper-class daughter of a prominent citizen, a dual resident who can leave whenever she wants—and who has never had to suffer in the same way as her poverty-stricken kidnappers. It is because of this very otherness that she is singled out; she represents to them an entire world that they wish to enter. “It is often women who pay the price for what men want,” Mireille tells the ringleader of the kidnapping at one point.
And because of their actions, Mireille loses the “home” she once had—both literally, as she will never be at ease in Haiti again, and figuratively, in that she struggles to find a place of rest and renewal within herself.
Likewise, her father’s reluctance to save her is rooted in a desire for a certain kind of home as well:
My parents spent most of their lives trying to find their way home too. They wanted to return to their island, their people, their food; they yearned for the salt of the sea on their skin or at least my father did and my mother learned to want for what he wanted.
(Let me just geek out on writing for a minute: What perfect construction! “Want” here can also mean “lack.”)
I could go on and on about the superb power of the story—it left me bawling for days, until Jack made me put the book down and go out to dinner, and it has stayed with me for many months. It’s the kind of book that, as soon as you finish, you have to begin reading it again immediately, in order to absorb all of the power and pain and beauty all over again.
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