In An Untamed State by Roxane Gay, Mireille Duval Jameson is kidnapped as she, her husband, Michael, and her infant son, Christophe, are leaving her father's fortified, Haitian estate. A group of men, led by "the Commander", rip Mireille away from her family and hold her in captivity in hopes they can force a seven-figure ransom from her father, Sebastien Duval. Avoiding a thriller plot focused on how Mireille will be rescued, the story's focus is on the extreme ways Mireille is tortured and the effect this trauma has on her life and family. Though it is revealed early on that Mireille survives the ordeal (the story is told in past tense) the reader learns in this gripping tale of survival that Mireille survives not without great loss.
Mireille was born in the United States to Haitian immigrant parents. Raised in the midwest, Mireille and her siblings visited Haiti often with their parents. Mireille grew to both love and hate her parents' native country. It's a land whose natural beauty entrances visitors while its crime and corruption leave much to fear in the shadows of its densely-populated urban areas. While Mireille and her siblings remained in the United States as adults, her parents returned to Haiti. It is in Haiti where her father Sebastien created a successful construction firm and accumulated enough wealth to entice the resentful gangsters that reside in the slums beyond the walls of his family's estate.
Mireille's story comes in two parts: Part I is Happily Ever After as she knew it.
Memories of Mireille and Michael's fateful meeting, courtship, and subsequent romance and marriage are punctuated by scenes from Mireille's kidnapping in which her body is tortured and used by her male captors. Haiti proves to be an unstoppable force that often creates tension between the young couple. And as the reader learns of their relationship through memories, they also bear witness to the ways in which Mireille must tear herself away from these memories and her life in order that she survive. It is a distressing read into human survival. Mireille becomes a shell of her former self so that she can survive her captivity. She becomes untamed, much like the landscape that surrounds the cement walls in which she is being held.
Just as the Haitian landscape is ravaged by poverty, political corruption, and violence, so too is Mireille's body. Her body becomes a landscape on which the ideologies of men battle: her captors who torture her body to punish her for her father's wealth; and her father who refuses to pay a ransom to men who will never be satisfied, who he believes will never see the error of their ways.
In Part II: Once Upon a Time, we are taken through Mireille's recovery.
Mireille is now in the aftermath of war. She has been released, but not without great loss. Held for thirteen days and repeatedly raped and tortured, Mireille tells the reader repeatedly that she is dead. She died in order that she might survive. Her recovery is not easy. It is not nice. It is not pretty. Mireille has a very delicate grasp of reality and suffers from flashbacks of her captors and their actions. She can't bear to be touched by anyone, especially men. She refuses to eat, to put anything else inside her body. She doesn't want to hold her son. Can't bear that he touch her tainted flesh. She refuses medical help for too long. She is completely shattered and broken. She ascribes her cause of death to both the men who tore her away from her family, and by her father who sacrificed her.
While much of the story focuses on Mireille's captivity with flashbacks of her life leading up to that point, the part of the story in which I especially enjoyed Gay's writing was the relationship between Michael's mother, Lorraine, and Mireille. We learn in the first part of the book that Lorraine did not approve of Mireille and gave her a hard time early on in her and Michael's relationship, but she proved to be no match for Mireille as they are cut of the same stone. They are, to put it simply, equally tough and quick-witted. They are full of fight. When Lorraine fell ill and Michael was unable to care for her, Mireille flew to Nebraska and did what was expected she do as Michael's wife, care for her mother-in-law as she underwent chemotherapy. It is here that we see a different type of love, a love between women that evolves out of necessity. In turn, Lorraine plays a critical role in Mireille's recovery as she flees her and Michael's home in Miami.
Roxane Gay does an amazing job of making her women real in all their beauty and ugliness - the ugly that exists within and the ugly we are forced to take.
While in captivity, Mireille made choices to survive, to endure and as a consequence of these choices she had to become someone else. Many women endure. Many women are forced to do things in order to ensure their survival. The women Mireille encounters in Haiti mirror her will to survive. While she doesn't understand their betrayal or their choices, I understood that these women were enduring and surviving the only way they could.
As always, Roxane Gay's words and her storytelling abilities are staying with me long after I've closed the book.
Have you read An Untamed State or anything else by Roxane Gay? Let me now in the comments!
To get to know her better, you should follow Roxane Gay on Twitter.