Roxane Gay, An Untamed State, Grove Atlantic, 2014
Reviewed by Natalie Mattila
Roxane Gay's first novel, An Untamed State, is a raw, uncompromising, magical, and dangerous novel about Mireille Duval Jameson, the strong-willed youngest daughter of one of Haiti's richest sons. When Mireille vacations with her husband and son in Haiti to visit her parents, she is kidnapped in broad daylight just outside her father's vast Port-au-Prince estate and held captive by a man called "The Commander" and his seven aggressive handlers.
With her father's refusal to pay her ransom in an effort to "negotiate" the price with the captors, Mireille suffers the consequences: agonizing torture by these men who rape and beat her repeatedly until there is nothing left of her sanity but a spark of dignity and unfulfilled hope. Gay captures the essence of Mireille's strength and despair:
I tried to count how long each man took so I would be better prepared the next time they came. I needed to know. It was hard to hold on to so many numbers—thirty- four, nineteen, fifty-seven, seventy-nine, sixty-three. I could no longer scream. My voice was already hoarse so the sound I made caused me to cringe. It was the sound of something lost.
Mireille draws strength from the memories of her husband, son, and her sister to endure the torture, sexual abuse, and graphic torments of her captors. After her excruciating thirteen-day captivity, Mireille must re-acclimate to her life in "the before," which proves to be a painful process for both her husband and her unforgivable parents.
Gay opens with a version of the conventional fairy tale form: "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."
By doing so, Gay presents a binary between the magical and the real, framing the violence and evil as well as the recovery and redemption via an explicit story/tale structure. Kate Bernheimer, in her essay "Fairy Tale is Form, Form is Fairy Tale," describes the form's normalization of magic: " The day to day is collapsed with the wondrous...In the fairy tale the magical and the real coexist...." By using aspects of fairy tale form, Gay highlights the readerly expectation or desire that this will end happily-ever-after, complete with a handsome prince and evil being defeated by good. Mireille's captors never receive their punishment; Mireille never fully recovers mentally.
There is a connection between Mireille and Snow White throughout the novel, including the seven men and the evil Commander, Mireille looks into a bathroom mirror during her captivity and realizes how her body, and mind, has changed. But Gay's character is more of a posttraumatic Snow White: that character is poisoned by an apple and revived via true love's kiss; the Mireille who lived in "the before" dies at the violent hands of her captors and a different woman is revived in "the after." While the scenes describing Mireille's captivity and torment are powerfully resonant, it is her life in "the after" that most deeply haunts the reader.
Gay speaks of the horror, grief, courage, support, and love that surviving a tragic, life-changing event requires. This hauntingly beautiful "fairy tale" reveals the parallel between reality and happy endings. It is the ultimate representation of what happens in "the after" of a fairy tale story, when reality sets in, the villains run rampant, and the narrator suffers the mental, physical, and emotional tolls of transformation.
An Untamed State is at once a fairy tale and a brutal portrait of real crimes, blending family struggles, Haitian politics, and sharp disparities in social class.
This is not just a story of a willful woman attempting to survive her captivity and find her way back, some happily-ever-after. It's a story about how redemption and happy endings are found in unexpected and difficult places. It's a story about how life can change irrevocably in one instant, and the only thing that can be done is to move forward. And it's a story about how quickly a person can change, and even become stronger, when faced with such dehumanizing circumstances.