Roxane Gay’s debut novel, “An Untamed State,” is a bold yet troubling book because of its disturbing, graphic telling of the events that follow the kidnapping of a young Haitian mother. But if one can wrestle through the brutal agony that appears on so many of its pages, it’s a terrific read.
Things go from bad to so much worse in the days that follow the broad-daylight kidnapping of Mireille Duval Jameson, the strong-willed daughter of one of Haiti’s richest businessmen. Moments after leaving her father’s well-protected Port-au-Prince estate with her American husband and their young baby — and just three pages into the book — a gang of heavily armed men whisk Mireille out of her car and take her to a place from which she may never return.
When the kidnappers, led by a cruel man called the Commander, contact her father with an outrageous ransom demand, Mireille is certain of what will follow when she tells us, “I hoped I did not know my father as well as I feared.” Tragically, she realizes that ambition is the only emotion her father knows, and because of this he hesitates to pay for her release.
During her almost two-week period of captivity, Mireille experiences the worst kind of psychological and physical torture and rape imaginable by the Commander and his men. But in between those terrible hours, which are described in the painful first-person voice of Mireille, there are many more hours of being alone in a cell, deprived of everything except the memories of her earlier life — the before, as she calls it — which is revealed throughout this horrific ordeal.
This is a novel chiefly about the power of men over women; it also examines the worst of humanity in the context of what it means to be rich or poor, and what happens in a society where the balance between the two is so extreme. The character development of Gay’s protagonist, Mireille, is particularly well-crafted and nuanced; her portrayal of a woman who fights her strongest fight to resist being defeated by her captors is compelling and agonizingly felt by the reader.
The strength of Gay’s novel really lies in her poignant words capturing the inner thoughts of a woman caught in an unspeakable predicament:
“I made myself forget for as long as I could and then, alone in my cage, as the heat of the day rose and filled the room, it suddenly all came back to me, who I was and who I loved and who I needed. The memory of my life, the weight of it, threatened to break my body more than any man could.”
This novel is not for the faint of heart, but it will reward the reader as it chronicles the buried strengths of a woman thrown into a situation that no one should ever have to endure.
Jim Carmin is a book critic in Portland, Ore.