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What We’re Reading: An Untamed State by Roxane Gay

2015 April 23
by Liz Lampman

What We're ReadingAn Untamed State by Roxane Gay (Black Cat, 2014)

It’s the middle of the day, and I’m having a drink. I need one after finishing An Untamed State. Roxane Gay brought me to tears more times in the reading of her novel than I’ve cried in the last six months. (I don’t know if my dog would concur, but he can’t count, so take my word for it.) Let’s skip the over-used modifiers—heartbreaking, brutal, haunting—and be honest. Here is a story that explains the extent of the awful truth that “Girl children are not safe in a world where there are men.”


In An Untamed State Mirielle and Michael Jameson and their son visit her wealthy parents in Haiti. Mirielle is captured by a gang in the ransom business and, for the next thirteen days, subjected to nightmares of flesh and dehumanizing violence while her husband futilely attempts to convince Mirielle’s father to pay the ransom and return her to safety. The majority of the story is told in first-person from Mirielle’s perspective, with intermittent chapters in the omniscient voice from Michael’s point of view. The novel takes place in Haiti, Miami, and Nebraska. Gay takes special care to note the privilege of her protagonist’s starting point; in effect, she shows us the fairy tale, then dismantles it, and brings her readers to their knees in empathetic protest for Mirielle, the former princess.

Characterization in this novel depends on the protagonist’s point of view, almost exclusively. At first there are many names, many faces. Perhaps it is somewhat difficult to keep track; however, we could read that sense of bewilderment as an emotional foreshadowing of its own. Michael, Mirielle’s Nebraska-born-and-bred husband, does not speak the language and he has no allies to help him find his wife. Michael is lost in a web of negotiation and decorum. Ultimately, however, the names slip away in the same way Mirielle’s former life does. We’re left with a small cohort of the characters who love her most, the people who have made an attempt not to understand, but to accept the trauma she survives.

Gay complicates the idea of personal strength by showing how it functions differently in different contexts. She foreshadows heavily in chapters three, four, and five about Mirielle’s father’s resolute determination, his “ruthlessness.” He’s a self-made man in America but beyond wealthy in the country of his birth—Haiti. He met his wife, Mirielle’s mother in America; they loved each other impenetrably in their own ways. And it is within their family, that the readers see wide variance in love. Gay juxtaposes the great love of Mirielle’s father for her mother with her father’s love for her:

“That night […] my parents spent most of their time sitting with their foreheads touching in their own world. My parents are not warm people. They love hard and deep but you have to work to understand the exact nature of that love, to see it, to feel it. That day was the first time I realized my parents loved each other more than they loved us though I couldn’t know then the price I would pay for that love.”

Sebastien Duval raised his three children to keep stiff upper lips and exceed his aerial expectations. We learn, through Mirielle’s perspective, of the way she (his youngest daughter) was most susceptible to his intolerance of weakness, and coached herself to excel at all things and to be unyielding with her will. All this before she faced death and torture. After she is kidnapped, Mirielle speaks of her father’s stubbornness proudly to her captors, even as she comes to understand it is the very reason she is still imprisoned. At the end of the novel, it is this final question, how could a father abandon his daughter?, that drives the plot. Mirielle and Michael return to Port-au-Prince for one last time. She has been through surgeries, therapy, and hell just to resume a socially normal life, but she returns to ask her father why he waited thirteen days to pay for her and to tell him the horrible truth of her kidnap.

“I wanted to tell him I would never forgive him, that his impossible choice had killed all my love for him, but when I looked into his face, all I saw was an old man who made a terrible, weak choice and had to live with it for what remained of his life. He did not deserve the truth of how I died.

I looked at my father, the man who had been the uncompromising measure for all things in my life for so long. There was still good in me. He did not need to know the truth for me to feel more alive.”

The prose is fast. This is the kind of book you read too quickly, and then pick up again immediately after you’ve finished. I typically avoid such traumatic subject matter, but, in my opinion, Gay treats her readers as tenderly as she can with material of this violent nature. Instead of belaboring the physical torture, she focuses on Mirielle’s internal resolve to supersede injury:

“I made myself forget for as long as I could […] The memory of my life, the weigh of it, threatened to break my body more than any man could. I needed to be no one so I might survive.”

Throughout the novel, the characters’ pains are tempered with this cadence of resolve. Over and over, Mirielle is told to be strong, and this advice takes on a very different tone as we learn what it means to actually face torture with strength. Mirielle undoes who she was and becomes “no one;” she emerges from her prison alive, but “a fucking mess.” As a result, the most emotionally intense parts of this novel occur in the aftermath; the irreparable damage to Mirielle’s body and mind are not clear until we see her in the light of her former home:

“I was the kind of hungry I did not know was possible but in its way, the hunger felt good. It was a comfort to be so empty. I had to hold on to that emptiness.”

It is here, in the uncomfortable and sometimes hopeless space of healing where true love prevails. Her mother-in-law, of all people, is the person who coaxes Mirielle back into the life she once loved.

What surprises me most about this novel, is that it steers us away from the harsh rationale that so often accompanies human trauma and sacrifice. Mirielle’s father says to her, “In impossible circumstances one is faced with impossible choices.” Gay does not end the book with some institutionalized pardon of the “necessary evil” of violence, of rape. Instead she, unrelentingly, shows the reader the bottom line for Mirielle and her family, and what this bottom line says to me, at least, is that one life is too many. Gay is saying that women are used as collateral, universally, and collateral damage is unacceptable.


What have you read lately that shook you to the core?


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