In An Untamed State Roxanne Gay takes a hard, unsparing look at race, complicity, privilege, violence against women, and how one woman survives the horror of an abduction. Mireille is Haitian-American, a daughter not of poverty but of wealth and a sheltered life. She admits that she has a fairytale life. That is, until visiting Haiti from their home in Miami, when she is abducted by a group of men seeking a ransom from her father. At first, she wants to believe that such kidnappings are business transactions and that no serious harm will come to her. She desperately wants to believe her father will pay the ransom and she will be returned home. But, the tiny hope that she is wrong about her father and her kidnappers is soon crushed. The level of cruelty and violence of her captors escalates as her father and negotiators refuse to comply with the kidnapper’s demands, and her mental, emotional and physical state deteriorates.
The novel is intense and exhausting to read — from the impressive opening lines:
Once upon a time, in a far off land, I was kidnapped by a gang of fearless yet terrified you men with so much impossible hope beating inside their bodies it burned their very skin and strengthened their will right through their bones.
They held me captive for thirteen days.
They wanted to break me.
It was not personal.
I was not broken.
This is what I tell myself.
to the closing incident that reminds the narrator that healing from such a life destroying traumatic event is fraught with setbacks and moments that can send her right back into survival mode. While I often read more than one book at a time, I found that I while reading An Untamed State I had to pick something else up to get a break from the unrelenting nature of the novel, to have space to process and then return again.
The title echoes the nature of the violence, poverty, and corruption besetting Haiti as well as the mental and emotional state of the narrator throughout the novel. Despite the presentation of poverty setting the dynamic that leads to kidnappings, the perpetrators are not excused, not drawn as sympathetic. That the kidnappers do not distinguish between the privileged of Haiti whose wealth is from corruption and those who earned their life through hard work argues that the kidnappers talk of the injustice of their world, but are nothing more than opportunistic thugs that use violence and power to gain money and are as corrupt and immoral as those they rail against. Likewise, when Mireille returns to Haiti years after the incident, she wants revenge, but against one once closest to her because principle weighed more than her life in his balance sheet.
Between the harrowing, lingering moments of the kidnapping, we learn the story of Mireille, her family including the romantic tale of her parents marriage (she refers to her father as her mother’s Prince Charming), her father’s success and triumphant return to Haiti, and her love and marriage to Michael, a Nebraskan farm boy. Mireille’s family calls him Mr. America and embraces him — albeit more as a marker of success than as genuine love for him. These stories provide the before and after of Mireille’s life, the person she was to contrast with the person she was forced to be to survive. The format gives the reader space to breath, to digest, to recover from the relentless destruction of a woman. Slow progress through this book for me reflected a need to process, let the book inhabit my space, not a reluctance to engage or indicative of a ‘slow’ novel. In fact, the novel’s pace was blistering at times and I looked forward to my next opportunity to read.
Unlike a fairy tale, the novel does not end with Mireille’s release and a ‘happy ever after’. The reader follows the days and weeks, the months, and eventually years of Mireille’s journey to be whole, to find who she is, to find not just a reason to live, but a life worth living. Mireille’s climb from the abyss where she cannot remember her own name or those she once loved — it was easier to survive as ‘no one’ — to a place where she feels safe and loved is as brutal a journey as that of her captivity.
Interestingly, it is not the husband, her child, nor her own family that serves as her anchor — they are hurdles that she must overcome — but her mother-in-law, Lorraine. Mireille’s memories portray Lorraine as every negative of the stereotype of the midwestern farm wife. But, in the before, when Mireille ends up caring for her mother-in-law through cancer, a different bond develops, one where they truly see each other without the burden of love getting in the way. It is to Lorraine that Mireille runs to when she can bear no more on her own.
Gay’s characters are fully realized — there are moments we like and dislike for all of them, even when we don’t want to feel anything for them. We can emphasize even when we cannot understand. All, however, is not as it seems in this novel, nothing is simple, none of the questions it poses have easy answers. Are the few wealthy responsible for or owe something those in poverty, are there acceptable considerations that come before a single life, can one find one’s humanity after brutal dehumanization? The layers to the story that bear a resemblance to fairy tales (the originals, not the Disney-fied ones) serve also to subvert those tales and simple solutions.
For the majority of the novel, I listened to the audiobook version. The narrator, Robin Miles presented the novel perfectly. She captured the complexity of Mireille. Only on rare occasions do I listen to an audiobook on standard speed but the slower pace let me feel the impact of each phrase, to sit with each event and emotion evoked by Gay’s honest, brutal language. She does not spare the reader from the graphic reality of the poverty in Haiti and violence is spawns, nor does she shy away from the results of that brutalizing these boys visit upon Mireille because they cannot harm those they feel are responsible for their lot. The writing isn’t lyrical — and that is not a short-coming. Indeed, the stripped down language lets us into a raw space where we can dislike the haughty attitude of Mireille in the before yet root for her in the after. An Untamed State challenges the stories we tell ourselves to isolate and insulate ourselves from what goes on ‘out there’ by providing a narrator who must face what most chose not to imagine.