An Untamed State. Roxane Gay. Black Cat, 2014. 368 pp; $16
In many ways, An Untamed State should be a difficult book to read. It is extremely violent. It takes place in the complicated political reality of Haiti, and unravels the complicated personal realities of the Haitian diaspora. The book begins when Mireille, a young Haitian-American woman, is violently kidnapped and dragged away from her car while visiting Port-Au-Prince with her husband and infant son. The first half of the novel follows Mireille in captivity as the kidnappers demand an exorbitant ransom from Mireille’s wealthy Haitian father. When her father refuses to capitulate immediately, the kidnappers subject Mireille to unimaginable cruelty. The book describes how easily we can be betrayed by the things we take for granted: our countries, our families, our bodies, our minds.
As we watch Mireille do whatever she must to survive in her present captivity, the narrative jumps back in time to explain, in bits and pieces, how Mireille’s past has lead her to this place. We learn about how Mireille grew up in America as a child of immigrants, and how she related to the Haitian diaspora as an adult. We follow the charming story of how she came to love her white husband, and how she managed to build a relationship with her prejudiced Midwestern mother-in-law. We learn about Mireille’s father, his struggle to build wealth in America, and then his triumphant return home to Haiti to continue to build his success. And despite the back-and-forth nature of the narrative, the drama is never lost; there isn’t a single line in this book that feels superfluous. The exhausting heat of Haiti is often referenced, especially in the first half of the book. The constant oppressiveness of it serves to underscore Roxane Gay’s exploration of fragility. Societies, households, and individuals are all under constant pressure, and An Untamed State explores what it takes for them to break apart.
When Mireille is eventually released and her physical survival is all but assured, she is faced with another challenge: she must rebuild her broken relationships and psyche. Less ambitious writers may have ended the book with the protagonist’s release, but Gay is not content to allow the reader to rubberneck around trauma and then draw her own conclusions. An Untamed State is primarily concerned with the deeply challenging task of repair.
This is where the book shines brightest. As Mireille and her family try to understand the enormity of what has happened to her, Gay strings along a series of small, subtle lessons in human interaction. This is only possible in a book with characters that are perfectly realized, and the characters in An Untamed State absolutely live off of the page. There can be no easy solutions after terrible violence, and yet Gay finds an ending that is still deeply satisfying and resonates with a mature hopefulness. Although the subjects the book tackles are difficult, An Untamed State is deceptively easy to read. The characters are beautiful, frightening, playful, and wise. The book is taut and radiates emotion; her prose is a plucked string. »