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.