Review of Roxane Gay’s An Untamed State

Untamed State

 

Roxane Gay doesn’t waste time getting the story started in An Untamed State. The novel opens directly with a confession of sorts from the narrator, Mirielle:

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.

This opening passage has been quoted often in blurbs and reviews, and for good reason. At its most basic level, the passage serves the role of boldly introducing the novel’s plot, with the final two lines hinting at the complexity of the story behind such a simple summary. And as an introduction of sorts, this one is deceptive in its apparent simplicity: despite the way the story is framed, An Untamed State is anything but your typical fairy tale.

cover_untamed_stateIn the Haiti of An Untamed State, kidnappings are common enough to come with a standard procedure. First, the daughters or wives of wealthy Haitians are taken by a gang of the island’s poorer inhabitants. Then the family hires a negotiator, a price is named and met, the woman is returned safely. This is common knowledge, even to Mirielle, who is in Haiti with her husband Michael and her infant son, Christophe, to visit her parents, Sebastien and Fabienne Duval. Mirielle’s kidnapping, which happens in broad daylight just outside the gates of her parents’ lavish home, is shocking, but it happens early and the story quickly moves on. The real tension of the novel first escalates back at the Duval home, where Sebastien, a wealthy self-made construction magnate, refuses to appease the kidnappers, and remains steadfast in his decision despite pleas from Michael and Fabienne—a stubbornness that leads to physically and psychologically devastating consequences for Mirielle.

In the first half of the novel, Gay switches back and forth between the present tense and the backstory of Mirielle and her family. Through glimpses of their courtship, readers see Mirielle repeatedly tell Michael that she is “a tough woman to love,” and I would say that this novel, too, is tough to love. How can you love a novel that details so graphically a woman’s physical and psychological trauma? How can you love reading about her lover’s complete helplessness? And how can you love reading about a father who resists paying a ransom to secure his daughter’s safety?

Yes, this book is difficult to love, and it’s also, at times, difficult to read. Gay’s prose is enchanting, but she pulls no punches in describing Mirielle’s abuse repeatedly throughout the novel, and it’s a testament to her skill to admit that those scenes can be challenging to get through. And at times I found it difficult to tolerate the narrative shifts, not only from Mirielle’s first-person account to the third-person perspective that mostly follows Michael, but also from the present tense to the past tense, as Gay spares few background details about Mirielle and Michael’s relationship—how they met, how they fell in love, the obstacles they overcame that made their love so strong.

I had questions. Why all these details? Why all these shifts? And perhaps most importantly: was the relentless detail of Mirielle’s brutal treatment, scene after scene, simply too much?

But then I reached the middle of the book, when things begin to turn, and I was reminded of just how good of a storyteller Roxane Gay really is. She takes such complete control of the narrative that it’s impossible to do anything else but put your questions aside and let her carry you along. While my reaction to the first half of An Untamed State was, in part, skepticism, my reaction to the second half was complete awe and acceptance.

An Untamed State is not simply a story of a woman who is kidnapped—or at least her release from captivity is not the complete release of tension one might imagine it would be. Rather, An Untamed State is a book about a woman’s recovery, the fallout from the trauma she suffers. It’s a psychological novel about damage and healing and recovery and love. It’s a novel about being broken, about killing oneself before learning to rebuild oneself, knowing that though healing is not impossible, there is no way to truly undo the breaking that was done. All of this is richer because we are made to see the detailed scenes of Mirielle’s abuse, to understand the ways in which she was broken. And because we understand the strength of Mirielle’s marriage, we have a scale for understanding how devastating her experience was to test it.

Gay is at her best, her most moving, when she narrates Mirielle’s methods of coping with trauma. In order to survive, Mirielle becomes “no one.” The novel gains an entirely new level of depth as Mirielle attempts to strip herself of her identity and then recover from that stripping forced by captors who are almost too cruel to be human, and yet are unmistakably and hauntingly human nonetheless. When Mirielle is coping in the aftermath of her captivity, Gay’s storytelling nears perfection. It is emotional and captivating and poignant. It lingers.

I’ll repeat once again that An Untamed State is not an easy book to love, or even to read, though I don’t mean it as an insult. Gay simply forces readers to see things they don’t want to see. This isn’t simply for the purpose of shock, of course—though it can be difficult to look this novel in the eyes, it’s an incredibly important story, one that forces the audience to grapple with understanding the trauma of a woman caused by men. And it forces us to see the myriad effects of that trauma, no matter how difficult to stomach they might be.

 

Justin Brouckaert

Justin Brouckaert’s work has appeared or is forthcoming in The Rumpus and Passages North, and he has reviewed books and journals for Yemassee, Sundog Lit, The Review Review and Newpages.com. He is a James Dickey Fellow in Fiction at the University of South Carolina.