Yesterday evening, I bought Roxane Gay’s debut novel An Untamed State. I had wanted to read it for some time, but wasn’t sure I wanted to spend the full sticker price on a brand new, albeit paperback, book. And when I saw the cover, I was hesitant: it seemed, in the parlance of a writing snob, like a book club book—the soft-washed image of a running woman, her head turned away, the suggestion of fear and beauty. A very different cover from Bad Feminist, with its stark white and pink. Had she gone in a new direction, I feared? Or was this just marketing at play?
But I had heard Gay read a brief section of the novel recently at a University reading and Q&A and was intrigued by what I heard, by the way she was able to electrify a hall of several hundred undergraduates into complete silence. And, knock on wood, her writing has never let me down: nonfiction that is sharp and tight and gives me plenty to happily chew on; the first of her work I ever read was a short story that cut to my bones.
I started reading at ten-thirty. At nearly one in the morning, I had to stop, even if I didn’t want to—I knew I’d be cranky and miserable in the morning if I didn’t sleep. When the alarm went off, I picked right back up. And, three hours later, had devoured every page of the book and am already desperately impatient for her next novel.
The only other novel I’ve read recently that has so engrossed me has been Hanya Yanagihara’s A Little Life, another book that was as intensely difficult, emotionally, to read as Gay’s. As the barest of overviews, An Untamed State follows the thirteen days, and weeks of aftermath, when Mireille Duval Jameson, a Haitian-American lawyer, is kidnapped while visiting her family in Port-au-Prince. Her father Sebastian, an extremely wealthy building mogul, refuses to pay her ransom, for two weeks.
What happens in those thirteen days to Mireille is terrible. Gay does not pull her punches, and the story does not let us look away from the damage being wreaked on Mireille’s body and mind. This is, very much, a book about rape: the ways in which a woman is undone, and becomes someone else to herself.
I found it very difficult to read this book, but intensely satisfying, vindicating, as though it were some sort of vicious, pure expression of anger: at the things women are forced to survive. This is not, per se, an “angry” book—have no fear of an agenda, ulterior motive. But it is also an explicit portrait, via Mireille’s body, of the encroachments men make upon women, of the rights that are presumed over women. Her father will not pay her ransom because he will not imagine what is being done to her—and if he will imagine, he cannot, and will not, understand what it means. Her husband Michael grows frustrated with her continued fear and brokenness because he cannot bring himself to see—can not imagine, will not force himself to imagine—what was done to her. It is their privilege to not see or imagine those things. It is the wholly horrifying and real divide between existence as a man and as a woman.
One of the most complex and interesting characters in the novel was Fabienne, Mireille’s mother. While she does not get as much page time as the other characters, Fabienne was fascinating because, while she ultimately is the one to force Sebastian to pay the ransom, she also—in a recognition by Mireille—loves her husband more than her children. And yet Fabienne also sees Sebastian’s weakness, and in one of the most affecting moments of the story, thanks Mireille for offering him a (false) forgiveness: a strange, arresting moment in which a mother recognizes the structure they both are trapped in, but refuses, consciously, to do anything but support it.
There are many women in the novel, all complicated, all frustrating and worthy, which I loved: the women in the Port-au-Prince slums who refuse to help Mireille; her mother-in-law Lorraine, a tough, unwelcoming woman who becomes Mireille’s biggest post-trauma support. Fabienne, accommodating and enabling of Sebastian. Mothers, sisters, daughters: a book populated with women who know what it means to be women, in every good and terrible way. There are so few books that manage to do this, and I applaud Gay for how well she’s drawn back a curtain to show us something I always feel and know: the secret, and not-so-secret, web of women’s lives. Protection, and abandonment. The system in which we all work.
The book also teases apart privilege, what it meant that Mireille did not have to imagine, in the before, the things that were done to her either. I think that this, the novel’s quiet acknowledgement of geopolitical and cultural difference, of economic and national privilege, was certainly a more secondary aspect of the novel; its primary interest in politics were gender and family ones, rather than a detailed discussion of Haiti’s political climate. But what was acknowledged was crucial: that no character, including Mireille, including her captors, was entirely innocent in the matter.
If I had to find anything to prod at in the book, it might be part of the novel’s origins as a short story: from what I understand, the story grew from a piece of short fiction that used the framework of “deconstructed fairy tale,” a now-popular genre of writing. That structure—the “fractured fairy tale”—is still used in the novel, and while I don’t think that it significantly detracts from the story, I would argue that it doesn’t add anything crucial or dynamic either. It may be Gay’s bad fortune that a conceit she helped develop in short fiction is now too common for her to successfully use it in long form without seeming a little stale. It also may be that I have less patience for the novel’s allegorical aspirations, claiming Mireille’s experience as the ultimate fairy tale: the real kind, the terrifying Grimm story. True, yes, but less satisfying. This is a story we know, the broken fairy tale, and reminding of it seems like the only misstep, or perhaps unnecessary step, the novel takes.
Ultimately Gay’s novel is not a fun read, not remotely, but it is necessary, and beautiful, and fiercely intelligent. The construction is tight, the language strong. These are characters a reader can deeply care about, as they have that perfect reflective and individual quality: Mireille is every woman, every woman’s experience in some degree, but she is above all purely herself.
Bridget’s Balanced Review: 9/10