I saw Roxane Gay speak at AWP last winter when it was here in Seattle and she was kind of mesmerizing. She wasn’t particularly intimidating, she actually seemed incredibly approachable and one of those people I wanted to hear speak on any topic for any length of time. I think she will also be one of those people on my “Who would you invite to dinner if you could invite any 5 people” lists. Not as a negative – but I feel like she is also probably one of those people who I would never say the right thing around. I have a knack for sticking my foot in my mouth around really smart, well read, strongly opinioned people. Anyways! I really wanted to be Roxane Gay on the list, but I originally wanted to put her latest book, Bad Feminist on. Unfortunately it just recently came out (well … I guess fortunately!! Because now I can read it!), so instead I put her first novel on. And woah. It rocked my socks on a lot of different ways. An Untamed State by Roxane Gay is …. really fucking good, and hard, and intense, and sad, and a massive page-turner.
But before I get fully into that, let me introduce you to our other 2 readers.
This is Sarah! She just recently wrote about home and the ocean while I was on blog-vacation. Another fun fact: She was the first person who told me I was buying clothes that were too big and to stop that right now. (I still have trouble doing that, but that insight changed my clothes buying world for the better!)
Tina (on the right) went to law school with Maris and is also from Seattle though we didn’t meet each other until we were all in grad school. She is probably one of the funniest and most thoughtful people I have ever met. It’s magical how she can be both goofy and deep at the same time. Tina is basically amazing.
Now on to An Untamed State…
Sarah: I’d actually come across the book a few weeks before it was assigned, and decided to add it to my “to read” list. I’d been reading a lot of fluff and YA (not necessarily at the same time) and had been on a kick to find something that would be a less comfortable read. “An Untamed State” had popped up several times tagged “disturbing” along time same lines as Cormac McCarthy’s works, and was widely praised, so I figured it fit the bill. I wanted something that would be a challenge, not just easy reading. When it was assigned I took it as a sign that I’d made a good choice.
Tina: I was pretty apprehensive about reading this book, because I assumed there was going to be a certain amount of heinous violence against women in this book. Spoiler alert: I was right. I find reading about or watching depictions of violence against women particularly difficult, and this was no exception. As such, I knew reading this book would be challenging emotionally.
Lauren: I knew nothing about this book when I picked it and it wasn’t until Margaret mentioned something about it not seeing the world very optimistically… or something like that (Margaret, correct me because I’m totally flubbing your thoughtfulness) that I sort of thought oh shit, what did I get everyone into…
Sarah: Mireille Duval Jameson, an American born daughter of a wealthy Haitian businessman is kidnapped and held for 13 days while on a visit to her parents’ home in Port au Prince. While waiting for her ransom to be paid she has to find a way to endure incredible brutality, and once released, find a way to return, if possible, to the woman, wife, and mother she was “in the before”.
Tina: A well-off Haitian woman in kidnapped for ransom while she is visiting her parents. The ransom negotiations don’t go well, and her kidnappers take out their frustrations against her father (who they called for the ransom) on her. She is utterly helpless in this situation, and has to find a way to endure until she can be freed. Afterwards, she has to deal with putting herself back together.
Sarah: So many of the reviews say this is a book about hope, but I absolutely disagree. It would be really easy to peg it as a book about resilience, overcoming, and strength, but I think the main theme was actually much darker. Cruelty, in all its forms, and how much damage it can do. While the first half of the book focuses on the sheer brutality of her kidnappers, the smaller, every day cruelties of her family, friends, husband, and self do just as much damage. Interspersed in the fantastical story of torture and its aftermath, I think it was these small cruelties that Gay really intended us to pay attention to. Reading through I was shocked to see how many of them really bothered me – because they were familiar. So yes, cruelty and damage.
There were aspects of the story that bothered me, for sure – specifically the actions of her husband, throughout. He’s not portrayed as a bad guy, but there were so, so many times I wanted to shake and smack some sense into him. I do think it was important to show that even our favorite people are flawed, but there were times where it really felt exaggerated to me.
The dynamics of her relationship with her in-laws and her sister really sucked me in. The nuances were so well thought out that while these supporting characters weren’t nearly as fleshed out as she was, the relationships felt real, full and complex.
Tina: There were several recurring themes in this book. First, is the idea of privilege. There seem to be two types of privilege: wealth, and the privilege to be free from fear. Mireille’s parents immigrated to the United States and made their living there, until they moved back to a gated mansion in Port-au-Prince. Her father owns a construction company and is very well-off, especially compared to the majority of the country. This dichotomy between rich and poor, and the extent to which Mireille had taken her lifestyle for granted, come to a head when she experiences firsthand what poverty can make people do. The kidnappers seemed to be taking out their rage at the unfairness of the system directly onto Mireille’s body, and she has no choice but to come to terms with how privileged she used to be.
Second, Mireille’s fearlessness is taken from her by the experience. Her husband had always respected her and she wasn’t afraid of men in a general sense, but her kidnapping takes this away from her. Afterwards, she is afraid of all men, and constantly imagines the worst thing a man can do to her. For example, when she is back in the US, during an encounter with a police officer, she imagines the ways in which he could hurt her. She will never fully trust men again. I think this is something that happens to many women who are victims of sexual violence.
Third, the title of the book seems to be another theme. At first, I thought “An Untamed State” was referencing the country of Haiti itself. But as Mireille stays longer and longer with her kidnappers, she becomes like a feral animal in order to cope with what is happening to her. She forces herself to dissociate from who she used to be, telling herself “I was no one.” After she is freed, she is still more animal than human, hiding under beds and constantly feeling like there was a leash around her neck. It seemed like she became an allegory for the underbelly of Haiti—the kidnappers, who had been dehumanized by generations of inequality, then take out their frustrations on a rich lady who represents everything they despise, and she becomes dehumanized by their treatment.
Lastly, violence against women is a clear theme throughout the book. There is the obvious and horrific violence that Mireille experiences at the hands of her kidnappers, but afterwards, she has extreme PTSD and is afraid of all men. There is a really harrowing scene when she has to go through security at the airport to return to the US, and the equivalent of a TSA officer leers at her and has to pat her down. Her husband also pressures her into going to the hospital, and a male doctor tries to examine her. These would be uncomfortable experiences, even for a woman who hasn’t been brutally raped for two weeks. It was surprising how little empathy even her husband could have, because he didn’t really understand how much she had experienced. It was very strange to me that the husband didn’t insist on a female TSA agent or female doctor for his wife. I don’t know if this is supposed to be a subtle message about the patriarchy, or how men don’t really understand how women can be afraid of men, not just her attackers.
Lauren: I really thought the heart of this book came down to choices. The choices we make have ripple effects. But it isn’t just action/consequences. It’s about the power to withhold, the choices we make in the face of powerlessness, the feeling of having no choice (when maybe that is actually a false feeling), and on and on. When faced with the worst thing imaginable, what do you do? What about the second worst thing? Who will we be when something terrible happens or when we are called upon to act?
Sarah: At the end of the book, I think the holes in the story were intentional, and necessary. As so much has taught us over the years, you don’t need to see everything to really know what’s happening and there is such a thing as too much detail. I think Gay rode that line extremely well – both in her descriptions of the brutality, and when it came to possible healing.
Nothing felt like it was missing. I wasn’t really wondering anything at the end, but it didn’t feel neatly wrapped up, either. I could fully imagine the characters continuing on without the readers to witness.
Tina: The author very successfully told the story of a woman who endured horrific violence and how she eventually found her way back to being almost whole. I read this book all in one sitting because I could NOT put it down—mostly it was so harrowing, I had to finish and find some sort of conclusion to all the violence and pain. After I finished, it really affected me—my hand was shaking, and I had to watch some random sitcom to decompress from the book. There weren’t any holes in the story, because it was fully from Mireille’s point of view. I was left wondering what happened to the kidnappers, but it felt okay that it wasn’t 100% explained. There was no police report or court case, because that’s not the kind of country that Haiti is. It would have been too neat for Mireille to find out what happens to her kidnappers, because in real life that wouldn’t have happened. I was okay with not knowing everything. It was enough that I could imagine horrible things happening to them because of karma.
Lauren: I had a few issues, but I have to say that overall the realness of the characters in this book was striking. These were complex people who I would not be surprised to see walking down the street. It was such a well thought out scenario and plot, there is an entire world here beyond just this one section in these people’s lives. Roxane Gay has a shit ton of talent. It blows me away. That being said my issue, again, has to do with her son. A baby. It drives me crazy when there are babies in books/movies/sitcoms that are not actually part of life. And I guess this might be because if you actually had to deal with real needs of a child, half the book would be taken up with reading the same children’s book 15 times and changing diapers. But it does get really frustrating for me when the real needs of a small human are kind of brushed aside or handed off. It really distracts me.
My other issue: I felt like what happens after the kidnapping dragged. I really appreciated seeing what happens to someone after going through a terrible experience and it wasn’t simply wrapped up after 13 days yay everyone gets to go home and go back to normal, hoorah! But, it sort of felt like Roxane got caught up in the action and like a runaway train couldn’t reel it in at times. There were places where I would have been with a few lines of summary and not having to go through the paces. I started to feel exasperated by Mireille at certain places and it took me out of the story.
Sarah: The focus on small cruelties really surprised me. I expected a fairly cut and dry book about the kidnapping and her life after, but what I got was much more complex and much more personal. This, though made for an extremely layered and engrossing story.
Also, the last chapter surprised me. It was information that seemed out of place and unnecessary – the chapter before felt much more like closure for me. While I understand why Gay wanted to include this chapter, I can’t help thinking it was out of place – it fully felt like it had been intended to be included earlier in the story, but was tacked on at the end.
Tina: Even though I knew bad things would happen to Mireille, I was still kind of shocked that she was raped. For some reason, I thought that her kidnappers wouldn’t rape her to get the ransom money. But really, there are certain kinds of men who will combine rape with all sorts of heinous crimes, and there doesn’t seem to be a moral code against rape in Haiti—especially the “untamed” Haiti that Mireille experiences. The sheer level of horror that she endures really surprised me, and my reaction to the story also surprised me. I don’t usually cry at books, but I cried, and I felt something like sympathy pains in my uterus for what she was going through (kind of like how if you watch someone’s hand get cut off your hand starts hurting/tingling too?).
Sarah: This was a really difficult book to read. When I first started I spent a couple weeks reading a couple chapters here and there, taking breaks when it got too uncomfortable, or too confusing. I realized a few days ago that it was so confusing and uncomfortable because I kept stopping. So I started over, and read the entire thing straight through. Doing that I could see that the writing patterns that were bothering me (in the early chapters Gay continually flashes back to Mirielle’s earlier life, with no warning or apparent context; and often relies on the “I didn’t know how bad it would get” trope – which got old quickly) were intentional – when read in larger sequences they built the tension and really helped me to get into Mirielle’s mindset. The different locations, thoughts and characters really built together, even when they didn’t appear to, until my emotions reading began to mimic those in the story itself.
Based on the sheer brutality of the story itself, it would be hard to say I enjoyed it. But I’m not sure there are many people that could. And I’m not sure Gay means us to. It is a masterful piece of writing, and a very, very important story – but no, not enjoyable. I was emotionally exhausted when I finally finished the book, and I didn’t sleep well after it. But it also made me think. And one of my main criteria for art is that it make me think. Extremely well done. I would absolutely read other writings by Gay (she apparently has a book of essays (Bad Feminist, available August 5th) coming out soon – I will definitely be picking it up.
I would definitely recommend this to anyone who has the same critieria for art that I do – for those willing to look in the face of uncomfortable themes and really explore them. At the same time, I’d recommend it be read with copious amounts of wine. With as brutal as the book is, start to finish, some extra fortitude can come in handy.
But if you look to books for an escape? Probably not the best story for you.
Tina: Despite the really terrible things that happened in the book, I really did enjoy it. The story is really well-written, and the dichotomy between Mireille’s old life and her new post-kidnapping life was jarring and helped up the anxiety level of the reading experience. Even though the overall themes of the book were so dark, I felt really hopeful after reading it. The fact that Mireille was able to function at all after what she went through was remarkable. If this had happened to me, I would have become a drug addict in a psychiatric home or something. But she pulled herself together and managed to live an okay life. She was never going to be 100%, but the fact that she got even halfway there was amazing. It goes to the incredible enduring power of the human spirit.
Lauren: I really loved this book. It is a story I will be thinking about for years and years to come. It was just so well done. It could have come out campy or cliche or “seen it!” but it didn’t. I felt like it takes on a specific experience that as a white American I will most likely never experience. It made me feel like I understand parts of humanity better now. The bad parts, the desperate parts, the victim parts and the resilient parts. Humans are complex, our situation on this planet is complex, this story shaves off just a small chunk of all of that, but I would have never experienced it otherwise.