At first, I didn’t want to review An Untamed State, the debut novel by Roxane Gay, because I found it highly disturbing. And yet I couldn’t stop thinking about it. The novel begins when Mireille, a Haitian-American woman from a privileged family, travels to Haiti and is kidnapped. Her father refuses to pay her ransom, knowing that this could herald the destruction of the fortune he’s taken a lifetime to accumulate. In retaliation, her captors — men from poorer backgrounds — lock her in a small room, torment her and repeatedly rape her. Mireille forces herself to remain strong until she is finally released. She then faces the challenge of re-learning to live her old life and coming to terms with her experience.
One of the most distressing aspects of this novel is reading the details of the violence perpetrated against Mireille. This is in contrast to an essay Gay wrote about her own experience being gang-raped, in which she simply states: ‘They kept me there for hours. It was as bad as you might expect. The repercussions linger.’ In An Untamed State, Gay doesn’t spare the reader the horrific details of Mireille’s experience in captivity — the knives, the gang-rape, the cruel manipulation of her hope. Reviewers have questioned whether this detailed depiction of violence is necessary, with some suggesting it forces readers to become complicit in the brutality. Yet in my opinion readers need to understand what Mireille has gone through if they are to comprehend the strength it takes to rebuild her life. This is the focus of the second half of the novel, told largely through Mireille’s perspective as she begins the gradual journey from a ‘no one’ who is ‘already dead’, back to a mother and a wife and a daughter who can find ways of living with her past.
The novel also pushes readers to consider the extreme inequalities between rich and poor, both in Haiti and in the world as a whole. Mireille’s family live in a mansion, separated from the Haitian poor by thick walls. Her kidnappers, by contrast, live in slums where garbage covers the streets and it’s unsafe for women to walk alone. The book does not allow the kidnappers’ poverty to excuse their sadistic behaviour, yet the conversations between Mireille and her kidnappers do highlight the vastly different opportunities available to them. One of them ‘buys’ her from the other kidnappers so they will leave her for him. He tells her he watches rich women from a distance, with their elegant clothes and perfumes. ‘It’s like the shit of this place doesn’t touch you.’
For me, this book was confronting in part because I’ve been one of those ‘rich women’, working in highly disadvantaged countries including Haiti, living behind big walls and paying other people to cook my meals. I’ve read a lot of books about countries beset by extreme inequality, and few have marked me quite as much as this one. The gripping narrative, believable characters and unflinching depiction of difficult issues make this an unsettling novel, but also one that is insightful, powerful and highly relevant to the world today.
An Untamed State is published by Grove Atlantic.