Published by Grove Press
Publication date: May 6th 2014
When Mireille Jameson returns to Haiti with her husband and infant son to visit her wealthy family she knows of the tensions between the island’s poor and its rich. What she cannot anticipate is that on their way to an afternoon at the beach a gang of men will stop their car, beat her husband and kidnap her at gunpoint. For almost two weeks these young men will hold her captive while waiting for her father to pay a million dollars in ransom. That her father is unwilling to do so is just one of the emotional aspects that makes Roxanne Gay’s An Untamed State an explosive debut novel.
When it becomes clear that Miri’s father will not pay the money, ostensibly because he believes it will incite further kidnappings against his family, the gang’s rage is taken out on Miri. A strong, fierce woman, she is systematically stripped of her power and fierceness by being caged in a room with little food or water and being repeatedly raped, beaten, cut and burned. The stark brutality of Gay’s prose is such that there are points in An Untamed State where it feels as if the book must be pushed away, in the same way Miri tried to push away her rapists, because it is too much to bear. Finally, the only way she can bear it is to let go of herself, to deny the woman she was and to become no one. Even then there is no submission, everything ripped from her is taken by force even if it is the force of her own will that makes her dead and cold.
What makes An Untamed State such a gut-punch of a novel is how Gay uses situations in a way that evokes a visceral reaction. Some are easy in their fury- a father who won’t negotiate for his beloved daughter, leaving her to be subjected to profound degradation and brutality over money? That feels straightforward in the way it makes the blood pound, but Gay continues to throw obstacles into the face of our beliefs until an emotional exhaustion sets in—and that may be the lesson. After her release does Mireille’s inability to accept even the most basic levels of medical help despite being grievously wounded seem incongruous or impossible? Yes. But to whom? To a woman reading An Untamed State who has never had her personal being violated? What is required is what may be a difficult response from the reader: acceptance. It is not for anyone to say how Mireille should react to captivity, torture and rape, but to accept the only way she could cope with such an ordeal. Gay presses hard in this painful wound of a novel, but An Untamed State is critical reading for everything about it that is not fictitious—that we can never fully understand what has not happened to us.
Sarah's Book Shelves says
Glad you loved it! And I have thoughts on Mirielle’s reaction, which I’ll share offline. But I will say that was my big issue with this book!
Lynn @ Smoke & Mirrors says
Wow. I think I’ll leave this to others, but it does sound powerful…and way too intense in a “blood, guts, and gore” way for me to read. The point is well taken however, how can anyone ever really KNOW what it would be like? And should anyone force their will on this poor woman again? Though it would be difficult not to want to see her get at least the physical medical attention she should have. This would be so awful. And what of her relationship with her father in the aftermath. How could she NOT despise him? Just this much thought about such a situation sends a chill up my spine! 🙁
It’s definitely not easy reading, Lynn, but Gay doesn’t go overboard- this is all things we see in the news in countries where rape is used as terror. She gives the reader SO much to think about.
Shannon @ River City Reading says
Love, love, love your review. This is so spot on: “Mireille’s inability to accept even the most basic levels of medical help despite being grievously wounded seem incongruous or impossible? Yes. But to whom? To a woman reading An Untamed State who has never had her personal being violated?” This is such a tough read that it’s hard to imagine reading it again, but you’ve almost made me want to pick it up.
Thank you- I only knew about it because of you and while it’s not something I would quickly re-read I am so glad you told me about it. It’s that important.
Jennine G says
Oh my gosh. I don’t think I read a review of this book that grabbed me. It sounds almost like A Stolen Life…I had to literally only read the book certain times of the day. It was horrific. This sounds like it would be the same.
I really want to read this – it sounds so important and I love Roxane Gay. But I’m struggling with getting myself in the right mindset for something so brutal. Great review.
Praise hands! This is an amazing review and love that you’ve tied it to the new Gaga video.
How could I not?! That song is so powerful.
Monika @ Lovely Bookshelf says
I have yet to brave this one. It sounds so incredibly intense. I fear that “emotional exhaustion.” Amazing review, as always.
Marisa @ The Daily Dosage says
Gorgeous review. That is all. 🙂
Deepika Ramesh says
This is a profound review. I haven’t ready Gay at all. Perhaps, I would like to start with this. Thank you.
Thank you. I hadn’t read her either and while it is a very complex book and emotionally difficult it’s the kind of reading that feels necessary. At least to me.