Review: An Untamed State by Roxane Gay

This book wrecked me – and I mean that in a good way.  I finished this book in two days, and it was so intense I was thinking about it when I wasn’t reading – and well after I finished it.  This was not an easy read, but it was incredibly powerful.

Gay’s debut novel is the story of Mireille Duval Jameson, a Haitian-American who is kidnapped while visiting her parents in Haiti.  She’s literally torn away from her husband and her infant son.  The kidnapping of the wealthy in Haiti is fairly common, and the expectation is that she’ll be held for ransom and then released.

Gay sets our expectations on the very first page of this book:

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 through 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.

So as a reader you know that Mireille is going to have a bad experience, but you also know she’ll survive it. I was nervous to read this book, knowing that it would involve captivity and torture, which are probably the two things I’m most squeamish about.

I was further hesitant to read this book because, to be completely honest, I didn’t love the two other books I’d read by Gay (her memoir Hunger and short story collection Difficult Women). For some reason her writing didn’t grab me in those books.  But it did in this one.

This book was what you’d expect from that first page, but it was more than that. It’s also about trauma and recovery, resilience and strength. I’ve read a number of books that involve trauma, but I can’t think of one that delves as deeply as this book. And it’s also a story of love and marriage.

And it’s about economic disparity and privilege.  Mireille describes how her father moved to the U.S. to better himself, and how hard he worked.  He returns to his homeland as a wealthy executive, managing construction contracts all over the island. He lives with his wife in a barricaded mansion, aware of the poverty outside but unsympathetic.  Mireille herself isn’t really aware of the huge divide between the wealthy and the poor in Haiti, until her kidnapping.

We did not understand Haiti or know Haiti. Years later, I still did not understand Haiti, but I longed for the Haiti of my childhood. When I was kidnapped, I knew I would never find that Haiti again.

Interestingly, Gay offers no easy answers about privilege, economic equality and violence. Mireille is conflicted even about her father’s work and whether he and his family deserved to be targeted.  She comments on Americans’ flawed perceptions of Haiti, yet she’s written a book that all but ensures I will never set foot in the place.  That’s probably not the right reaction to this book, but it’s an honest one.  And yet Gay can remind us that violence occurs here in the U.S. as well, especially violence of a sexual nature.

I loved the characters in the book, and the way each are depicted with complexity.  Mireille herself isn’t always the easiest person to like, and her husband Michael isn’t either.  Each brings baggage to their relationship, and Gay highlights the differences in their parents and upbringing, and how hard it is for these two people from different cultures to come together.

The night I started this book, I had nightmares.  After that I only read it in daylight. I keep thinking, as we’re all talking about reading scary books for Halloween, that I can’t think of a book more terrifying than this one.

I could see someone asking, why would you put yourself through a book that involves thirteen days of torture?  I don’t have a clear answer to that, except that maybe it’s important to understand how people cope with trauma and the lasting psychological effects.  Because even if we haven’t gone through something like this, we probably know people who have been raped or abused or terrorized in some way.  This book isn’t violence for the sake of violence; it’s an exploration of human psychology.

I was very impressed by how much Gay was able to put me in the head of this character, who talks about who she was in “the before” and tries to come to terms with who she is now.  I wanted to cry (and did) through so much of this book.

In fact, I can think of only a few books that have shaken me in the way this one did.  Emma Donoghue’s Room is perhaps a comparison, although that book was about very long-term captivity and it was also told in a very different way.  I also found myself thinking about the rape in Diana Gabaldon’s book Outlander.  I know people who couldn’t continue her series after reading it.  You wish you could go back to a time before it was in your head, but you can’t.  We can certainly argue whether the rape in that book was gratuitous or not.  I’m not sure where you draw that line, but I know as a reader, what’s important to me is that an author takes the psychological effects of trauma seriously.

I should note here that I’m talking about things I myself know nothing about (thankfully). Those who know something about Gay’s history will know that she does have a history of trauma, the victim of a brutal rape as a teenager.  For whatever reason, as I read Hunger, I was devastated for her but also felt I was held at a distance.  With this book, maybe because it’s fictional, I felt like Gay wanted us right there in Mireille’s head, even when we didn’t want to be.

Occasionally, the narration of this book in past tense seemed to conflict with Gay’s style of writing this as Mireille is going through it.  What I mean by that, is there are times that Mireille is so traumatized she’s barely coherent, yet as a narrator she has to explain to the reader in some detail what happened. I occasionally found that distracting, although I was glad the book was written in past tense, because it meant that Mireille was narrating her story from a place of safety.

Since I’m trying to read more books about other countries, by writers who have lived in those countries, I wanted to know why Gay chose to write about Haiti. I learned that Gay herself is Haitian-American, born in Nebraska to Haitian parents.  I didn’t find anything online about her own personal experiences in Haiti, and I’d be interested to know more.

The book is written in a beautiful way, as you can see from its opening; sometimes direct and sparse, sometimes full of vivid imagery.  I feel changed for having read it.

I read this book for the 2018 TBR Pile Challenge and the Reading All Around the World Challenge.

  11 comments for “Review: An Untamed State by Roxane Gay

  1. October 6, 2018 at 9:24 am

    Wow, what a review. I have to agree with you that while I’ve found Gay’s nonfiction incredibly hard-hitting, I’ve also found it less technically impressive than the reviews often suggest. Very interesting to know that her fiction worked better for you; I haven’t read An Untamed State but this suggests it might be easier to get on with, on that level.

    • October 7, 2018 at 10:54 am

      Thanks Elle. I found this book beautifully written, though I didn’t care for her short stories. It’s an amazing debut novel, but then I think first novels are often an author’s best work. I would give it a try.

      • October 8, 2018 at 4:26 am

        Cool, definitely will now.

  2. October 7, 2018 at 5:49 pm

    I read this one over the space of two days too; it was impossible to put down. Like you, I still find myself thinking about it from time to time, even though it’s been a couple years since I read it. I hope Gay writes another novel soon.

    • October 8, 2018 at 8:38 am

      I’m glad to hear you had a similar experience, and I do expect to be thinking about this book well into the future. I think it may be hard for Gay to follow up this novel, and maybe that’s why she’s writing so many different genres these days.

  3. October 8, 2018 at 10:25 am

    Interesting that her fiction has worked so well for you – I liked but didn’t love Bad Feminist, the only other book of hers that I’ve read, although Hunger is on my TBR as well. I will have to pick this up.

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