My rating: 5/5 stars
“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. 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.” – An Untamed State by Roxane Gay
I feel like I have been reading some seriously excellent books lately and An Untamed State by Roxane Gay is no exception. I originally put this book on my TBR because I’m listening to, and LOVING, the author’s newer book Bad Feminist. I had an inkling, and a hope, that her fiction would be equal to her essays and what I found is that, in some ways, it is superior.
An Untamed State is set in Haiti (year undetermined, but a few years before the massive earthquake that devastated the tiny country) when a women named Mirielle Jameson returns to her family’s native land with her husband, Michael, and her infant son, Christophe, to visit her parents. Her parents are quite wealthy in a country where many are living in squalid poverty and they live in a huge home surrounded by tall, razor-tipped gates. When she leaves their compound, however, and sets out on a highly anticipated beach outing, she does not get far before she is kidnapped by a gang of men. So begins a thirteen day ordeal that defies our understanding about what the human body and psyche can possibly withstand.
Mirielle’s ordeal might have ended relatively quickly as the kidnappers give her father a two day deadline with a 7-figure ransom, an amount he is able to pay. However, whether because of fear of future kidnappings or an arrogant disregard for her safety versus parting with his money, he delays payment. And, thus, a daughter is punished for the sins of her father. To be sure, the kidnappers’ beef isn’t with her at all, but with her father. They see the economic inequality of the country as the fault of the wealthy and waste no time exacting their pound of flesh for that percieved crime. Mirielle is put through days of spiritual, physical, and sexual torture that leave her within an inch of her sanity.
Mirielle, as expected from an author who values strong women, is just that. Fiercely independent and protective of her heart, we see her in various stages of her relationship with her husband as the novel switches between the past and the present. However, she is not a one-dimensional character. She also shows herself to be compassionate, weak at times, and her personal growth is a main theme within the book. She is a character who makes you want to keep reading, as you don’t want to let her go.
At the risk of sounding too simplistic, this novel just works, on so many levels. It is at once a gripping psychological thriller, a complex political commentary, a conversation about personal motives and family dynamics, and a love story. Mirielle’s husband, Michael, is in turns devastatingly charming, sometimes completely clueless, and sometimes horribly lost. He certainly holds up the strong male character archetype, but his humanity and flaws are also laid bare in the book. Roxane Gay did every character in this book justice, her flair for being able to see both sides of the coin plainly visible in her writing of these people. Even the kidnappers, who I’m sure the reader would like to see simply as evil monsters, are given their due and she makes them human, even in inhumane situations.
In her excellent review of the book, The Guardian writer Attica Locke commented thoughtfully on the policial subthemes of the novel,
“…when Mireille tells “the Commander”, the leader of the men who have taken her, that neither she nor her family created Haiti’s problems, he counters with the accusation: ‘You are complicit even if you do not actively contribute to the problem because you do nothing to solve it.’ They are both right, of course, and part of the novel’s power resides in the existential question: to what degree are we our brother’s keeper? What, if anything, do the wealthy few in Haiti owe to the many poor?”
While it is certainly the opinion of the kidnappers that Mirielle’s father owes them for his good fortune, and must pay his dues, this is not inherently all right or all wrong. Roxane Gay manages to weave a discussion of these complex questions into a narrative that speeds along without mercy. The reader is able to see, from her descriptions in the book, the two polar economic situations that, in part, create such dangerous circumstances in these countries. Desperate people will do desperate things, although I may be simplifying the issue too much by saying that and I am certainly not giving an excuse for such reprehensible behaviour on the part of the kidnappers. I just appreciate when an author is able to write a book that is both a page-turner and an insightful discussion of complex societal issues.
Mirielle’s entire world is turned upside down by the events of her ordeal. She must re-evaluate the person she has now become, her relationships with her family and husband, and her feelings about a country she once considered her homeland. Her mother-in-law, at first decidedly unlikable, becomes the unlikely hero of the book and mirrors Mirielle’s strength, compassion, and resilience. It was an unexpected, and touching, relationship that helped Mirielle begin a healing process in her new existence.
I won’t lie: this is not an easy book to read. It is like a raw, gaping wound and it will stay with you long after you have turned the final page. But I’m okay with that. I think that the oppurtunity to step outside the self and consider someone else’s perspective, experiences, and circumstances is the ultimate goal of the thoughtful reader. I finished this book in less than 24 hours simply because I couldn’t let Mirielle’s story go until I had a sense that there was hope for her yet.
Roxane Gay has proved that she is a literary force to be reckoned with and I will definitely be seeking out more of her works in the future. This is an amazing book.