Ever read a novel that’s beautifully written but horrifying, disturbing and heartbreaking, and yet so riveting that you can’t put it down, even during the very worse parts. That’s how I felt reading An Untamed State. I had all the feelings from page to page. Fear, anger, despair, anxiety, hope, relief, joy all jostled for attention as I journeyed through Roxane Gay’s tale of a young wife and mother kidnapped and held for ransom in Haiti.
Mireille Duval Jameson, is a successful lawyer and also the daughter of one the richest men in Haiti. All her life, she has only known the privilege of being rich and educated, and is more or less untouched by the poverty, corruption and lawlessness of Haiti where her parents live. During a visit to her parents her fairy tale existence comes to a brutal end when she is kidnapped by a gang of armed men in front of her husband Michael, an American, and their infant son. Held for a ransom of a million US dollars, Mireille waits for her father to pay, but it soon becomes clear that he has no intention of paying to secure her release. And so begins a series of torments and abuses that Mireille must endure at the hands of her kidnappers who despise her because of who and what she represents.
Interspersed with flashbacks to Mireille’s childhood, her meeting and subsequently marrying Michael, the birth of her son, and her relationship with her parents and in-laws; this is a story of survival, of a woman enduring the most horrific abuse. From the start Mireille is determined not to be broken by her kidnapping, but as the time wears on her father’s continues to resist paying the ransom, and her body is continually used for the depraved desires of her captors. Mireille, resorts to burying her sense of self in order to protect herself and the people she holds dear. By making herself ‘nothing’, it’s not really her being abused, but just a body. The latter part of the novel is about her journey to find her way back to the person she was, after being released, while questioning if that person even exists any more.
An Untamed State is a powerful novel about the sins of a father, the silence of a mother, the unquestioning love of a daughter, the love bond between a husband and wife, how this terrible event calls into question the dyanamics of these key relationships. Undoubtably Mireille is the person who suffers the most, but Gay, goes to great lengths to give voice to the experiences of the supporting characters, especially the two men in her life. Mireille’s husband Michael is rendered helpless because he’s in a country where as an outsider he has no voice, and most tellingly no power (no doubt frustrating for a white man used to the privilege of getting what he wants), as he has to rely on others and their willingness to help find Mireille and secure her release. Mireille’s father’s strange resistance to paying the ransom is frightening, considering the lengths he would go to remain true to his principles and the price he is willing to pay – Mireille’s life. Once seen as a tower of imposing strength like the buildings he constructs, by novel’s end, he is but an empty shell of what he once pretended to be, with his so-called ‘principles’ still weighing heavily upon him. Reading a novel such as this, it’s hard to see where salvation and ultimately justice might come from. But it does, from the most unlikely source – I certainly didn’t see it coming – and in the most powerful and beautiful way, and in doing so an element of Mireille’s past comes full circle.
So much is explored in this novel, themes of identity, pride, privilege, the bonds that tie tightly together and are broken by betrayal but can be restored by love and forgiveness. An Untamed State sets Roxane Gay up as a formidable writer as her non-fiction writing already attests, and I look forward to reading more of her work.