An Untamed State

UntamedStateIt was over 100 degrees out in Haiti on the day Mireille Duval Jameson and her husband Michael packed up their son Christophe to take him to the beach for the first time. Just moments after the gates of the Duval home closed behind them, three black Land Cruisers surrounded the car, and Mireille was dragged away, a prisoner held for the one million dollar ransom the captors were sure her wealthy father could provide.

Mireille tried at first to hold on to herself, but shows of spirit have consequences:

In the back of the Land Cruiser on the day I was kidnapped, I was in a new country altogether. I was not home or I was and did not know it yet. Someone turned up the radio. I began to sing along, wanting to be part of this one familiar thing. Someone told me to shut up. I sang louder. I sang so loud I couldn’t hear anything around me. A fist connected with my jaw. I slumped to the side, my head ringing. I didn’t stop singing though my words slowed, slurred.

The first half of this novel by Roxane Gay follows Mireille throughout her brutal days captivity, with flashbacks to her courtship with her white American husband and glimpses at his efforts to get her back, even when Mireille‘s father is reluctant to pay the ransom, believing that giving in will only make him vulnerable to further kidnappings of those close to him.

As I was reading this book, I was also watching the second season of The Fall, the story of the pursuit of a serial killer in Belfast. Both stories focus on violence against women from the women’s perspective, thus removing the titillation and placing society’s objectification of women into the spotlight. To the killer in The Fall, his victims are there only to fulfill his desires. Mireille, likewise, exists as a pawn, not just for the kidnappers, but also for her father—and even to Michael.

Toward the end of The Fall, Stella Gibson, the detective pursuing the serial killer Paul Spector, tells Jim Burns, a colleague and former lover, that he’s mistaken to consider Spector a monster, that he’s doing what men do, what Burns himself has done. He has denied her own wishes to satisfy himself. Michael, as he woos Mireille, often ignores her wishes, not listening to what she says, insisting that he does love her and he will marry her. Mireille, as it happens, genuinely loves Michael but is terrified of loving, so his pursuit turns out to be a good thing for them both, yet his insistence gives one pause. Later in the book, when Mireille returns to him, broken and unable to explain or seek help, he dwells on his own pain.

This last half of the book was, for me, the more interesting part. The first half, showing the abduction and the courtship twined together, did not offer anything particularly new beyond the graphic violence, not prettied up for the camera. (And, to be honest, having heard so much about the extreme violence in this book, I did not find the descriptions of it particularly graphic. It could be my diet of crime fiction has made me less difficult to shock.) The narration is at times repetitive, with too-frequent mentions of the difference between the before and the after and how much Mireille didn’t understand in the before. Gay’s prose style is crisp and clear, with short declarative sentences. It’s a prose style I like, and it did work at making the violence seemed more raw and less artistic. But it also made some of the repeated declarations feel more like anvils. There is a moment toward the end, when the repetition of “I died” is used to great effect because it puts readers in the moment with Mireille. The narration is less effective when Mireille is speaking apart from the action, narrating the lessons she learned.

The last half of the book, which focuses on the aftermath, felt more original to me. There’s no predictable pattern for this kind of story, and Mireille refuses to follow anyone else’s plan for her recovery. She has to choose her own free will, even if that choice is not the best for her physically. I was pleasantly surprised at how she ends up breaking out of it, although the groundwork for that path was laid early on the book. It felt dramatically appropriate and also adds some satisfying complexity to the way race is handled in the first half of the book.

Although I didn’t love this book on the whole, I think Gay was trying to do some interesting things with the story. The last chapter was, perhaps, a misstep—too much tidying up for my taste. I would have preferred ending a chapter sooner, with one story resolved and the other left open. But the questions around how free will and our desires work for and against us are intriguing. Gay is an interesting thinker whose essays I’ve admired for a while. But here, the ideas are either not fleshed out enough or are made too overt. It may be that what I appreciate the most about her work is better suited for the essay format.

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10 Responses to An Untamed State

  1. I’ve been very interested in this book since I first heard about it. Despite your minor issues with it, I’m still really looking forward to reading it. There just aren’t enough novels set in Haiti and the premise sounds refreshing and different. Bad Feminist is also on my list to read!

    • Teresa says:

      It’s an absorbing read (and quick for me), which makes my minor issues even more minor since it didn’t take me long to read.

      If you want more about Haiti, you should look up Edwidge Danticat. I wasn’t crazy about her most recent book, but her debut Breath, Eyes, Memory is really impressive.

  2. Loved reading your thoughts on this one. On the whole, I loved it, and I did think the second half was simply amazing. A tidy ending, maybe. I definitely had that thought, but there was still enough ambiguity in the big ending development to keep me happy.

    • Teresa says:

      Thanks, Andi! I feel like I’m in the minority for not loving it and I’m glad the second half went in such interesting directions because that’s what won me over.

  3. You know, I probably shouldn’t read blogs during The TBR Dare. The second half of this book as you describe it makes me want to read this one. That, and the fact that you connect it to The Fall which is just about the best thing out there right now.

    • Teresa says:

      Ha! Well, this book will still be around in April :) The Tournament of Books has kept me out of my own TBR, but I had planned TBR Dare exceptions for those books, of which this is one.

      Other than offering a woman’s perspective on violence, I wouldn’t say its a lot like The Fall. But when I was thinking about my review, I was trying to remember when in the book someone said the thing about attackers doing what men do–and then I remembered that it was Stella, which put me in mind of that connection. I’m glad to see more stories that treat violations as violations and not as entertainment or vehicles for men to show their strength.

  4. I’m with you, I liked but didn’t love this book. I thought the story was interesting and the prose was serviceable.

  5. Stefanie says:

    Since reading Bad Feminist I’ve been thinking about trying her fiction. While the books sounds interesting I think I might not read it after all.

    • Teresa says:

      On the pro side, it reads pretty quickly, and some of it is quite good. But I think her real strength is with essays. I’d read more of those before I’d read more of her fiction.

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