An Untamed State
(Black Cat, Grove/Grove Atlantic, 2014)
There are times when reading a novel is painful. Not because the prose is lacking or the narrative lags, but because the subject matter verges on the unbearable. Roxane Gay’s debut novel, An Untamed State, falls under this last category. And yet, you must read it anyway. For beyond missing out on a story of such emotional power, you will miss out, as well, on this emerging writer’s abundant talent and insight, all on stunning display here.
Gay’s novel dramatizes the experiences of a quickly growing segment of the U.S. population: Latin American and Caribbean immigrants and their struggle to assimilate in the United States while maintaining a cultural and emotional connection to their country of origin.
The novel opens with a shock. The narrator, Mireille Duval Jameson, is kidnapped mid-day, outside her parents’ home in Port-au-Prince while she is on vacation. “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.”
Mireille, a corporate lawyer, lives in Miami with Michael, her husband, and their infant son. Her parents grew up poor in Haiti, then moved to the United States where they raised Mireille and her siblings. When the novel opens, they have returned to Haiti and now enjoy an affluent, lavish lifestyle due to her father’s success as a developer. But it is in stark contrast to the way most Haitians live, and even the manner in which they themselves grew up. As children, both her parents frequently went hungry and had to walk to school barefoot. Even Michael is struck by their current opulence, remarking to Mireille during his first visit to Haiti before they were married, “How do people like your parents survive the guilt of living like this?”
The kidnapping occurs on a stiflingly hot day (“nearly a hundred degrees, the air so thick it felt like warm rain”) while Mireille and Michael are en route to the beach with their baby. The moment their S.U.V. pulls out from the heavy steel gates of her parents’ compound, things quickly go wrong. They are surrounded by three black Land Cruisers, and men spill out brandishing machine guns. After beating Mireille and Michael and threatening to kill their baby, the men force her inside one of the cars and drive away with her. “There are three Haitis—the country Americans know and the country Haitians know and the country I thought I knew. In the back of the Land Cruiser the day I was kidnapped, I was in a new country altogether.”
Mireille is driven through the city for hours with a burlap sack over her head, then locked inside a “cage.” But she remains hopeful, in spite of the horror. Kidnappings are common in Haiti, she reassures herself, almost like business transactions. And she believes at first that she can somehow beat her way out of her confinement. In America, her strong will and stubbornness have been an asset. These qualities have helped to garner her career, making it possible for her to raise her son completely differently from her parents’ poverty-stricken childhood. And from a young age, her father encouraged her to put up a brave front always, instructing her never to cry.
(He) said we needed to be strong because as Haitians in America we would always be fighting; Americans wouldn’t understand we came from a free people. He said they would always see us as slaves so we had to work harder, we had to be better, we had to be strong. … ‘There is no room for emotion if you want to succeed in this country’ … I understood from an early age to keep my feelings to myself.
But these feelings of hope and strength quickly fade as Mireille’s strong will becomes a detriment during her captivity. “Heat takes on a peculiar quality during the summer in Port-au-Prince. The air is thick and inescapable. It wraps itself around you and applies pressure relentlessly. The summer I was kidnapped, the heat was relentless. The heat pressed up, so close against my skin. That heat invaded my senses until I forgot nearly everything, until I forgot the meaning of hope.”
But when her father refuses to pay the one million dollar ransom, Mireille’s real torment begins. His decision has dire consequences for her and for the entire family. No one and nothing will be the same afterward.
Despite the details of sexual violence, Gay’s gifts as a storyteller and her skill at crafting sentences will keep the reader engaged and turning pages. Gay weaves in themes of fairy tales, Greek mythology, and fables that Mireille was told as a child. Although the narrative is presented mainly from Mireille’s point of view, it periodically switches to other characters, narrated at times in first person and other times in third, offering a fuller and more nuanced portrait of the kidnapping and the wide spectrum of its devastation. Stories from Michael and Mireille’s courtship and marriage are interspersed throughout the current narrative of her captivity and serve as a small relief from the brutal descriptions of Mireille’s repeated physical violations.
As a couple, Michael and Mireille, both of whom have strong personalities, have had to contend with obstacles most couples typically face when building a new relationship. But they have also faced more complicated issues. Michael is white, and grew up on a farm in Nebraska, and initially his family is reluctant to embrace his new relationship with a Haitian woman, particularly his mother.
This discomfort with the mixed race couple extends to Mireille’s kidnappers who accuse her, along with her father, of engaging in acts of betrayal against Haiti. Mireille’s act is simple: she “married an American.” However, in the end, she’s punished more for her father’s sins of being too successful, of owning too much in a land of deprivation and abject poverty, and of having the audacity to leave Haiti and raise his family in America.
Although she loves Haiti, Mireille already has conflicted feelings about the country, even before the kidnapping: “[T]here is nowhere in the world both as beautiful and as ugly, as hopeful and as hopeless.” Her only experiences are from summer visits as a child with her siblings: “We loved Haiti. We hated Haiti. We did not understand or know Haiti. Years later, I still did not understand Haiti but I longed for the Haiti of my childhood. When I was kidnapped, I knew I would never find that Haiti ever again.”
An Untamed State is a journey through moral and ethical issues that, as would be expected, raises difficult questions, both for the novel’s characters and for its readers. Who is wrong? And who is right? These are questions that, in this novel, remain ambiguous.
Already a well-published and well-regarded writer as well as the co-editor of a literary journal, Gay has, in this stunning debut, crafted a powerful story of the Haitian diaspora and the immigrant experience of today, dramatizing the conflicts and questions facing those immigrants who try to settle in the United States while managing a complex relationship with their native country, and what happens when those immigrants try to go back home.
An Untamed State is a rich, beautifully crafted novel, which should establish Roxane Gay as a writer who has something important to say and who knows how to say it.