An Untamed State by Roxane Gay
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
You don’t so much read “An Untamed State” as experience it. Roxane Gay’s novel is that powerful, that realistic. It’s intense, immediate, and yes, at times almost unbearably brutal. Highly literary and yet paced like a thriller, “An Untamed State” is one of the novels of 2014 that should not be missed.
Gay consciously invokes a fairy tale with her opening lines, “Once upon a time, in a far-off land, I was kidnapped …” Her narrator, Mireille Duval Jameson, the daughter of Haitian immigrants, lives a charmed life in Miami as a lawyer, wife to a handsome all-American man, and mother of a baby boy. On a visit to Haiti, the fairy tale ends abruptly when Mireille is kidnapped by a gang of armed men just outside the gates of her parents’ magnificent estate. Her father, a wealthy construction magnate, refuses to pay her ransom. The reader follows Mireille through her thirteen days of captivity under the control of a barbaric, merciless man she knows only as “the Commander,” and in the aftermath, as she seeks to recover her identity as the woman she was before her capture.
Gay forcefully grabs hold of the reader from the start and doesn’t let go. Yes, there are a few passages that are not easy to read, but Gay controls the pace well, and very few readers will be able to abandon the novel before reaching the conclusion. Interestingly, for me, the most riveting parts of the novel were not the scenes of Mireille’s captivity, but those of her recovery. Mireille’s ordeal has damaged her spirit and sense of self almost more than her bruised and battered body, and I felt desperate to know if those deeper wounds would heal.
This novel, though, is about more than one woman’s traumatic ordeal. As engrossing and suspenseful as Mireille’s story is, that is merely the top layer. More broadly, “An Untamed State” can be read as a parable about the power that men wield over women. It is about the wide chasm between rich and poor. It is about survival and its costs. It is about the “untamed state” of Haiti. This novel is about any and all of those things--and more no doubt, that I did not perceive; thus, it is much more richly layered than it might first appear.
Gay’s prose struck me, at first, as too stark and direct. Yet I soon realized that the style was perfect for the unsparing, arresting story she had to tell. Her characters are nuanced, from Mireille’s husband Michael—genial, easy-going, and yet helpless when Mireille needs him most—to Mireille herself, a prickly and sometimes difficult woman who, in her own words, does “not love easy.” I loved Gay’s choice to make Mireille a woman who was not always likeable, who couldn’t stop herself from doing the wrong thing at times. She is flawed, like all people, which makes the reader even more deeply connected to her.
I will offer a few small quibbles; in a few chapters Gay switches from Mireille’s direct and unstinting voice to Michael’s less convincing perspective, and I found this distracting. There is a plot twist at the end that I felt was unnecessary. Yet overall, “An Untamed State” is a captivating and masterfully written novel, and with it, Gay cements her place as a compelling new voice in American fiction.
I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.
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