by Roxanne Gay
Published by Grove Press
on May 6, 2014
Genres: Contemporary Fiction
Mireille Duval Jameson is living a fairy tale. The strong-willed youngest daughter of one of Haiti’s richest sons, she has an adoring husband, a precocious infant son, by all appearances a perfect life. The fairy tale ends one day when Mireille is kidnapped in broad daylight by a gang of heavily armed men, in front of her father’s Port au Prince estate. Held captive by a man who calls himself The Commander, Mireille waits for her father to pay her ransom. As it becomes clear her father intends to resist the kidnappers, Mireille must endure the torments of a man who resents everything she represents.
An Untamed State is a novel of privilege in the face of crushing poverty, and of the lawless anger that corrupt governments produce. It is the story of a willful woman attempting to find her way back to the person she once was, and of how redemption is found in the most unexpected of places. An Untamed State establishes Roxane Gay as a writer of prodigious, arresting talent.
T.S Eliot described Nightwood’s (by Djuna Barnes) prose as “altogether alive” but also “demanding something of a reader that the ordinary novel-reader is not prepared to give.”¹
This is how I feel about a book I just finished; An Untamed State by Roxanne Gay. It demanded something of me. However, unlike that “ordinary novel-reader,” I was prepared to give it. I went into the book knowing I would have to give something. And, by God, did I give.
Once upon a time, in a far-off land, I was kidnapped by a gang of fearless yet terrified young men with so much impossible hope beating inside their bodies it burned their very skin and strengthened their will right through their bones.
They held me captive for thirteen days.
They wanted to break me.
It was not personal.
I was not broken.
This is what I tell myself.
An Untamed State is the story of Mireille Duval Jameson. She is a Haitian woman, a mother, a wife, a daughter, a sister, an immigration lawyer, and all around strong, confident woman. One day, while on vacation with her husband and young son, she is kidnapped by armed Haitian men and held ransom for one million dollars. The things that happen to her while waiting for that ransom are horrific. For thirteen days, she endures torment no one, man or woman, should have to face. It was personal. She was broken. No matter what she tells herself.
Roxanne Gay. What a writer. Seriously. She knows how to craft a sentence. She knows how to pack a punch. Reading her writing is glorious, despite the subject matter.
Like I said, I knew this would be a hard book to read. I had read reviews. I knew what was coming. However, when the book was on sale this holiday season, and Andi said she’d read it with me, I knew I had to read it. I knew it would hurt, but I also knew I would come out better on the other side.
This is something I’ve been thinking about quite a bit lately. Why do I (or anyone else for that matter) want to read books with difficult subject matter? I remember when I was a kid…. I was always a voracious reader. I read all the time. Time out in my room never bothered me; that’s where the books where! And I had a role model for this behavior. My grandmother. She read all the time. After she retired, she could sit and read two books a day. And you know why? She read easy books. She subscribed to Harlequin. It was nothing for me to go get the mail and find a box (or two, or three) of 6 books in there waiting. When I was in high school, and reading all the books, I asked her. “Did you ever read these kind of books? The classics and stuff?” And she said yes. “But now I’m too old to put thought into my reading,” she added. She didn’t want to think.
I want to think.
I want to be challenged. I want to expand my world view. I want my brain to be hardwired differently by what I read. (Seriously, read that article. It’s fascinating.) I want to empathize. I want to understand. I want to learn.
An Untamed State was a great teacher. I can’t wait to find my next one. As Gustave Flaubert said, “Do not read, as children do, to amuse yourself, or like the ambitious, for the purpose of instruction. No, read in order to live.” (sorry, couldn’t resist a favorite quote…) (I feel kind of pretentious.) (Oh well.)
The sun was still out but fading into pink along the horizon. It was beautiful how the color stretched across the sky in sweeping arcs. I stared into that pink, wanted to remember everything about it, until a hand grabbed my elbow.
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.
Sons are different, my mother says. They always look for home somewhere else. Daughters, though, a mother can count on. Daughters always come home.
What is truly terrifying is the exact knowledge of what will come and being unable to save yourself from it.
This is what I know-the body is built to survive.
My mother has often told me there are some things you cannot tell a man who loves you, things he cannot handle knowing. She adheres to the philosophy that it is secrets rather than openness that strengthen a relation ship between a woman and a man. She believes this even though she is an honest person. Honesty, she says, is not always about the truth.