June 2, 2014
An Untamed State by Roxane Gay
For about two-thirds of An Untamed State by Roxane Gay, I wasn’t sure what to think. The book begins with the most majestically-crafted sentence (“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 their very skin and strengthened their will right through their bones.”) but then that huge and generous perspective disappears and we’re left with a narrative that moves narrowly between the Before-and-After lives of Mireille Duval Jameson.
Before, ensconced in a fairy tale, confident of her wit and wiles, American born and raised but returned to Haiti, the land of her parents’ birth, her family’s opulent lifestyle conspicuous against the nation’s wider poverty, but this was the only life she knew. And then After, ripped away from her husband and child to be held captive for 14 days and subjected to rape and sadistic violence. From a bubble to a prison then, and while the novel was compelling, there was a flatness to the narrative, its dialogue, and I wanted more in exchange for the violence to which this book’s reader must bear witness—though I will note that the violence is described sparingly, more gestured toward than elaborated upon. Disturbing, yes, but not gratuitous. But still.
And then Mireille is freed (which is not a spoiler) and suddenly, the whole project comes together in the most mesmerizing way and the book became difficult to stop reading. In An Untamed State, the plot is not the point, but rather the point is psychology. First, the psychology of one who is suffering from post-traumatic stress and trauma, as well as the brutal revelation that there is so such thing as safety in the world, not truly. She leaves captivity disconnected from herself—she had to make herself into nothing in order to survive what was inflicted upon her, so how can she get back to the woman was, a wife and mother? Gay’s narrative enacts the processes that Karyn L. Freedman (necessarily, this being non-fiction) more cooly explains in her stunning memoir, One Hour in Paris: A True Story of Rape and Recovery. Both books show that trauma is not something one can move on from, but rather that it must be managed and treated on an ongoing basis, like a chronic condition. Which is both heartbreaking, that one never gets over this, but also hopeful—that there is a process at all, and life in the aftermath.
What is most compelling about An Untamed State are the family dynamics that run like fault lines through the entire text. When Mireille is kidnapped, her father refuses to negotiate with them, sacrificing his daughter with his unwillingness to abandon his principles. When she is freed, Mireille has to account for her father’s role in what happened to her, and Gay does a terrific job in making her father a fully-developed, complicated character whose actions are (almost?) understandable, instead of the far more convenient tyrant he could have been. Similarly, her mother’s compliance with her father’s point of view is troubling for her, and even the dynamic she has created with her own husband—she’s hardheaded and hotheaded, prone to running away in hopes of being found, and this time when her husband is unable to find her, the balance between them is upset, perhaps forever. It is remarkable how consistent the characters’ behaviour and actions are throughout the entire novel, and how these actions resonate so very differently in the context of Before and After.
Gay’s allusions to myth and fairy tale add marvellous texture to the novel, and perhaps go some way toward explaining the flatness I was initially confronted with as I read it. There is a deceptive simplicity to the novel that belies its remarkable originality, as does the fact that it’s a really good read. It’s that rare thing—a page-turner whose pages you’ll still be turning in your head long after the book is done.