Roxane Gay’s gut-wrenching debut novel, An Untamed State, pulls the reader through the harrowing experience of Mireille Duval Jameson, a Haitian-American who is kidnapped for ransom while visiting her parents in Port-au-Prince. Citing Haiti as the kidnapping capital of the world, where there are professional negotiators for abductions, Gay explores the dreadful conditions of this beautiful but broken country. During this trip, the tough Mireille herself becomes broken almost seemingly beyond repair.
In An Untamed State, Mireille is abducted as she, her husband, and their baby leave her parents’ gated house to go to the beach. Her husband cannot save her, and the many witnesses do not try. She is held for thirteen days at the home of the Commander, where she is kept in a small room (which she repeatedly refers to as a “cage”), is barely fed, and is subject to physical and sexual abuse that would be unimaginable were it not for Gay’s straightforward and gut-wrenching descriptions. The epithet “the Commander” echoes the elite men in charge in Margaret Atwood’s feminist dystopian classic, The Handmaid’s Tale. Intentional or not, this detail is but one element that bolsters the novel as a feminist story.
Mireille’s father, Sebastien, has raised his children to be tough and to be excellent in all endeavors, as he was born in poverty in Haiti but made his fortune in the United States before moving back to Haiti. Thus, Mireille comes from class privilege in Haiti, in contrast to the racial oppression she and her family have faced in America. It is this class privilege that results in her being kidnapped for a one-million-dollar ransom, which her father refuses to pay. During her captivity, the leader of the abductors, the Commander, tells her of Haiti’s problems that, “You are complicit even if you do not actively contribute to the problem because you do nothing to solve it,” to which she replies, “You are complicit too. Don’t think for a second you aren’t.” This exchange is but one example of Mireille’s emotional strength as well as Gay’s refusal to offer easy, pat answers to oppression and privilege, both public and private.
During her thirteen-day captivity, Mireille experiences a split of the self, a survival tactic in which she talks about her “before” self in the third-person, even as she tries to remember who she is, though she begins to forget her self and her family, pushing her previous and current existences out of her mind in order to cope. She is raped repeatedly – by the gang of captors; by one man, TiPierre, who pays off the other captors in order to have her all to himself; and the Commander, whose authority means he can abuse her at his whim, as he does daily. Mireille also suffers being mutilated, burned, and cut throughout the thirteen days, although she fights back physically, attempts escape, and always has tough words for her captors. She is a woman who has learned to be strong, ironically from her father who refuses to pay the ransom for the return of his daughter. His reasoning, which he explains to Mireille a few years after her ordeal, is that he did not want to lose everything he had worked so hard for, because often kidnappers come after more family members repeatedly if ransoms are paid.
The cost, of course, is Mireille’s life – her personhood and her humanity. Although her captors release her, she says, “Once upon a time, my life was a fairy tale and then I was stolen from everything I’ve ever loved. There was no happily ever after. After days of dying, I was dead.” Once having had a strong relationship with her husband, Michael, their marriage suffers after her release. She leaves, driving from Miami to Nebraska, where Michael’s parents run a farm. Although her mother-in-law, Lorraine, had not approved of their relationship before their marriage because of Mireille’s Haitian roots and skin color, stating that there aren’t many people in Nebraska like her, eventually the women, in turn, take care of each other when in need. When Lorraine gets cancer, Mireille spends four months taking care of Lorraine, and they develop a mutual appreciation. In the end, it is Lorraine to whom Mireille runs, to seek refuge and comfort in Lorraine’s practicality and minimal, yet consoling and truthful, advice.
Understandably afraid of and unable to be around men very much, Mireille has difficulty relating to and being around her husband, and it takes a while before she is able to tell him all that she endured. Michael tries his hardest to understand her feelings, but Gay highlights the impossibility of anyone else being able to comprehend someone else’s traumatic experience; he fails to understand the depth of her pain, the split in her psyche, and that he cannot fix it, no matter how much he wants to do so. Yet they endure and they adjust to a different life in “the after.”
Gay uses the forthright style of a fairy tale, although she deconstructs the genre, revealing that the past never ends for us. There is no happy ending; there is only moving on, Mireille being irrevocably changed. She does give her father a tidy ending, of sorts. She tells him she forgives him but reflects, “I wanted to forgive him, that his impossible choice had killed all my love for him, but when I looked into his face, all I saw was an old man who made a terrible, weak choice and had to live with it for what remained of his life. He did not deserve the truth of how I died.” She realizes she does not have to actually forgive him to be free of him.
An extremely talented writer and a promising voice for women, Haitians, black Americans, and LGBTQ persons in her previous writing, Gay has given readers in this novel a complex view of race and class privilege, particularly foregrounding violence against women. Readers can look forward to Gay bearing witness to these issues and more in her future work.
Gay has previously published a number of short stories and essays in anthologies, including Best American Short Stories 2012, as well as her short story collection, Ayiti, which focuses on the Haitian Diaspora experience. Gay is also co-editor of PANK, essays editor of The Rumpus, and will begin teaching at Purdue University in this autumn. Her forthcoming book of essays, Bad Feminist, due to come out August 5, has already created a buzz for those who have been following her career or who have read the advance press for the book.
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Overall rating: 9.5/10
Tracey K. Parker is a college English instructor who earned her PhD from the University of Arkansas. The focus of her research is popular culture in literature. She also has a journalism degree from the University of Missouri and is an avid reader and published writer.