June 6, 2014

An Untamed State

In Roxane Gay's debut novel, AN UNTAMED STATE, the narrator observes "the startling contrasts" of her parents' native country, Haiti -- "so much beauty, so much brutality." This is a perfect description for the book as well. The novel is deftly written by a writer of great talent. It's also deeply upsetting, and that's the point. This is a story about terrible things happening to one woman, and it provides an uncomfortable reminder that terrible things happen to women all over, every day.

Mireille is the daughter of a wealthy Haitian family. She grew up privileged in America, is happily married to an American, and has a successful career as a partner at a law firm. Before the events of the story, Mireille has moved through life fairly easily. I have that in common with her, and so I was as unprepared as she is for what happens after she is kidnapped outside the gates of her parents' estate, in broad daylight and in front of witnesses. She soon comments on how little she previously knew of suffering: "I had never felt anything so off-putting but then, I was only beginning to catalogue my discomfort. I had an inadequate frame of reference."

Mireille's father refuses to negotiate with the kidnappers because his experience of Haiti is that paying the ransom will only result in more family members being taken. So Mireille remains captive, and she is subjected to unrelenting sexual violence. Gay doesn't let the reader shy away from the horrors that Mireille endures. Fair warning: This novel will take anyone outside of their comfort zone. Readers will have to decide if they're able to face that challenge.

The brutality of the kidnapping story is broken up by flashbacks to Mireille's life before. The memories of her childhood and marriage contain both happy and difficult incidents, and we get a picture of the complex woman that Mireille has always been. Nothing in this story is simple or generic, and that's what makes the book succeed. Mireille is an individual in the way she copes with every event in the story. She has a unique strength and some very specific flaws, and all of this comes through in her amazing narrative voice.

Mireille's captivity ends after thirteen days (she tells us this on the first page). Though Mireille is free at that point, she's not free of what's happened, and the second half of the book charts the aftermath with just as much beautiful, painful detail. Her recovery doesn't come easily, but there is ultimately hope in this story.

The novel grew out of Gay's short story, "Things I Know About Fairy Tales", which relates the same tale in capsule form. You could read the story first to get an idea of Gay's writing style and the content of the novel, though the short piece is far less explicit.

Good Stuff Out There:

→ Brendan Constantine tries to answer a question from The Rumpus about where he writes: "I don't know where I write. Couldn't begin to tell you. I'm not being coy, I'm serious. I look at my books, the piles of uncollected work, and they just seem to have appeared. I can't create any images to go with my sense of ownership." (Thanks, The Millions!)

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