100-Character Breakdown: An unflinchingly raw and heartbreaking story that doesn’t hesitate in its portrayal of trauma.
Publisher: Grove Press/Black Cat (May 2014)
Roxane Gay’s novel An Untamed State is an unflinchingly raw and heartbreaking story of a woman as she is kidnapped while visiting her parents in Haiti. Mireille Duval Jameson and her husband Michael visit her upper-class parents in Port-au-Prince, Haiti’s capital, along with their son Christophe. A group of men attack her when she is with her child and husband; though they try to fight the men off, these men abduct Mireille and keep her captive for 13 days. The men place a high ransom on her, expecting her father — owner of a successful construction firm — to pay it. He refuses, leaving her alone in a cage-like room, where she is sexually assaulted and beaten over and over by her captors.
As the book alternates between Mireille’s past and present, the reader develops a deep sense of who she is, heightening the impact as her captors tear her apart physically and emotionally. At times, the description of her torture is painful and disturbing to read; however, this intensity is necessary to properly represent the trauma Mireille experiences. There are moments when the perspective shifts to Michael. This provides a view outside of Mireille’s torture, giving the reader a sense of how powerfully the abduction is damaging her family. Her father struggles to stick by what he believes is right as his wife and son-in-law beg him to pay for his daughter’s release. Gay does not shy away from the emotional and familial impacts of this trauma, as it results in a lasting rift that is difficult to mend. Each of these characters is precisely written, all flawed deeply in ways that make them feel real. This trauma breaks these characters, and their powerful portrayals allow readers to grab a strand of empathy and break along with them. The characters and setting open up major conflicts of family, class, gender, trauma, and race. All of these enhance the complexity of An Untamed State’s portrait of Haiti, which Gay describes as a beautiful yet deeply troubled place. Her writing is so vivid; her words wrap around the reader tightly from the first page and remain with the reader even after the last. Gay’s unforgettable and compelling novel begs to be read. It deserves every reader that it captivates with its words.