Wednesday, January 14, 2015

Review: An Untamed State by Roxane Gay

Savage. Brutal. Horrifying. Graphic. When you use adjectives like this to describe a book, it can be hard to convince people to read it. And when you add in the fact that there is terrible violence, repeated rape, kidnapping, and PTSD too, well, you'd be forgiven for giving the book a wide berth indeed. But do you still skip the book if it also tackles important issues of classism and inequity, entitlement and the social divide, and the reality of life in modern day Haiti?  All of this is very much what you find between the covers of Roxane Gay's debut novel, An Untamed State. It is difficult to read, jarring in the force of terrible happenings, and devastating in consequences but it is not a glorification or whitewashing of torture or poverty, nor of either America or Haiti. It is powerful and affecting and impressive.

Mireille, her husband Michael, and their baby Christophe have come to Haiti to visit Miri's extraordinarily wealthy parents. The small family is heading out for a day at the beach when Miri is snatched from their car and held for a million dollar ransom. Her initial concern is for her baby and her husband, assuming that she will be held relatively unscathed and eventually returned to her family. But when her father, a self-made man who will not relinquish his moral values for anything, refuses to pay the ransom and Miri herself disobeys her captors, mouthing off and refusing to tell her father she is being mistreated, hell on earth is released. Miri is beaten, gang raped, cut, burned with cigarettes, and tortured repeatedly to the point that she must mentally detach from her physical self, completely disassociating from herself in order to survive. For thirteen days, Miri endures, only because she must and because her body refuses to die like her mind has already done. And once she is returned to her family, her suffering is not at an end. She will live with the horror for her whole life.

The bulk of the novel is told in the first person by Mireille, giving the reader an inside view of the evil being done to her. But she also offers tidbits of her past life, her childhood with a loving but driven father, her genesis of her relationship with her Midwestern farmer's son husband, their misunderstandings and his passionate refusal to give up on her, and her brusque relationship with her mother-in-law. This backstory builds Miri's character beyond the broken and unstable women who survives unspeakable acts of violence, highlighting the ways in which she is indelibly marked by a malevolent Haiti she's never before experienced, cocooned in affluence as her family has always been in Miri's lifetime. The brief respite every now and again from the constant brutality is striking but it doesn't necessarily paint a very positive picture of Mireille. She comes across as volatile, contrary, and rather spoiled. Despite it seeming as if she is constantly testing Michael to see if he's good enough for her and the various way she is an unlikeable character, there is no question that she doesn't deserve to experience what she is forced to endure; no one does.  In addition, there are a few short third person chapters that take the focus from Miri and give the reader a glimpse of how her family, both her Haitian born parents and her American husband, are handling her kidnapping, completely ignorant of what she is actually experiencing.

Fully two thirds of the novel centers on the thirteen days in which Miri was captive with the final third detailing her difficulties afterwards. Those first two thirds are incredibly difficult to read, horror piling on top of horror to the point that the reader almost disassociates from the violence just as Miri does. But even the final third is painful to read as Miri tries to climb out of the dark and terrible place she has pushed her consciousness in order to survive. None of the characters come off well, not the wealthy and not the poor. The Commander, the leader of the kidnappers, is warped and evil. TiPierre, another of the kidnappers, desperately poor, offers Miri gentleness only because he wants her compliant and willing, enslaved to him because of his grotesque kindness to her. Miri's father is cold and uncaring, turning a blind eye not only to Miri's plight but to his extended family and the greater world around him in Haiti. Michael is ineffectual and suffering in his own way in this very foreign place. Interestingly, despite Mireille being angered by Michael's negative perception of Haiti having been formed solely by the US news, the book as a whole reinforces and strengthens this impression of Haiti as a terrible, lawless, and desperate place, a conclusion that Gay might not have fully intended. The prose is direct, the images confrontational and bald.  In the end, this was a book that I had to set down and walk away from, only coming back to it to read it through in a rush to get to the end and away from the brutality and brokenness, ultimately following it with a read as different as possible from it as an antidote to the lingering horror of the story. This wild and frightening, untamed state is definitely not for everyone.

Thanks to the publisher for sending me a copy of this book for review.


  1. I actually think it might be one I want to read.

  2. I am afraid to read this, even though I recognize how important it is. It just sounds so horrifying!


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