An untamed state

Roxane Gay

Book - 2014

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Suspense fiction
New York : Black Cat [2014]
Main Author
Roxane Gay (author)
First edition
Physical Description
370 pages ; 21 cm
Contents unavailable.
Review by New York Times Review

CONTEMPORARY TELLINGS TEND to mask the real horrors of the original Brothers Grimm stories and their ilk. We remember the princess and the happy ending. We'd rather forget that a passing stranger raped Sleeping Beauty as she lay unconscious, or that Snow White's jealous stepmother not only called for her death but wanted to eat her liver and lungs. Roxane Gay's striking debut novel, "An Untamed State," is a fairy tale in this vein, its complex and fragile moral arrived at through great pain and high cost. An assistant professor of English at Eastern Illinois University, Gay is also the author of a collection, "Ayiti," and a frequent contributor to Salon and The Rumpus. She reveals her literary intent in her first sentence, which begins: "Once upon a time, in a far-off land. . . ." The rest of the passage cuts to the crux: "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 They held me captive for 13 days." The kidnapping of this narrator, Mireille Duval Jameson, American-born daughter of a wealthy Haitian construction magnate, takes place in Port-au-Prince in broad daylight, just outside the gate of her family's walled mansion. Her husband, an American "blan," as he is known in the Haitian dialect for whites, looks on helplessly as she is pulled from their car and whisked away by armed men driving black S.U.V.s, while their toddler cries in the back seat. There are plenty of witnesses. Neighbors and passers-by cluster around but do nothing. This hopelessness and silent complicity also defines the reaction of Mireille's family. Even the reader is made complicit as the ordeal stretches into nearly a fortnight The highly detailed brutality Mireille endures haunts us long after the book ends. If we consume such images of sexual violence, does it amount somehow to tacit approval? We want to look away, as in the movies, but it's impossible to read with our eyes closed. Haiti is a country of "startling contrasts," Gay writes, "so much beauty, so much brutality." It is also, one character notes, the kidnapping capital of the world. There are protocols, expectations, professional negotiators to consult. When Mireille's father learns his daughter has been taken, he knows what to do. He picks up the phone. The kidnappers ask for a million dollars within 48 hours in exchange for returning Mireille unharmed. But time and money are not at issue. Mireille knows her father will not pay the ransom, even as she quietly hopes she is wrong. In most fairy tales, the king loves his princess daughter but is oblivious to the wickedness of whatever older female is cast as the villain. Here it is the father's intransigence, his unwillingness to give up his own fairy-tale existence, that sets events in motion. Late in the novel, Mireille's father defends his actions by describing a neighbor whose family was kidnapped repeatedly until they had nothing. "I had to think about your mother, your sister, my sisters, the rest of our family," he says. "Paying for you would sacrifice them too. It killed me to imagine what you were going through, but I am responsible for many lives." Cut from the cloth of biblical allegory more than fable, Mireille's father is not so different from Lot offering his virgin daughters to the mob of men outside his Sodom home. Except for a few chapters from her husband's point of view, the story reflects Mireille's experience of the present and her recollections of the past. Gay skillfully weaves multiple narratives among the lurid gang rape and torture scenes: the courtship of Mireille's parents (itself a fairy tale), framed inside an immigrant story of the American dream (another fairy tale); a childhood with close-knit siblings and their complicated experiences of Midwestern American life and Haitian summers; the tumultuous and charming courtship of Mireille and her husband, Michael. Mireille and Michael are marked by startling contrasts as well, with race being the least of these. Michael is a Nebraska farm boy with middle-class values and a genial temperament. Mireille is from the Haitian elite, but also a child of immigrants who, in her words, does "not love easy." While Mireille's parents embrace Michael, aware of the cachet an American spouse has among well-heeled Haitians, Michael's parents aren't keen the first time he introduces Mireille. "We don't get much of your kind around here," his mother says. The tension continues even after they marry. But when her mother-in-law gets cancer, Mireille takes four months off work to care for her. "There is something terribly intimate about bathing another person," she says. "I learned almost everything a person could know about my mother-in-law's body - her scars and birthmarks and wrinkles, the single strand of hair behind her left ear." An enduring bond develops, the kind that trumps bloodlines and filial affections. After Mireille's captors release her, the book follows her attempts to piece herself back together. The "near-perfect recall" that once let her pull up detailed memories of eating fresh sugarcane and Haitian fudge now works against her. In her traumatized state, present and recent past blur. Her mind flashes back to the kidnapping and stops: "When I closed my eyes, I was no one. I was the woman who forced herself to forget her husband, her child, all the joy she had ever known, who carefully stripped herself of her memories so she could survive." Back in the United States and unable to function, she embarks on a desperate road trip from her Miami home through the South and finally to the Nebraska farm and her mother-in-law, Lorraine, who tenderly nurses her back into womanhood: "She held me and kissed the top of my head. I didn't cry, and I didn't speak and Lorraine didn't speak. We just sat there. I remembered, for a small moment, what being safe felt like." IN THE NOVEL'S final chapters the years fly by at a rapid though satisfying clip. Mireille learns not to be afraid all the time, to work, to care for her son, to make love with her husband. Then the 2010 earthquake prompts her to consider returning: "Haiti split open and all that remained were gray piles of rubble and hundreds of thousands of people with nothing to hold them to the world, living in tents hungry, hungering and somehow, still faithful, holding their hands to the sky, praising God for their salvation. It was a new sorrow, a fresh break in an already broken place." They buy tickets but in the airport, surrounded by mourners also on their way to see family, she experiences a panic attack, her body shaking with tremors, a different kind of aftershock. When Mireille finally does return to Haiti, much stronger and intent on avenging her own "death," her target is not her captors but her father. She wants to break him with the "whole, filthy truth of my kidnapping, even the parts I hadn't told Michael." But her humanity overrides revenge: "When I looked into his face, all I saw was an old man who made a terrible, weak choice and had to live with it for what remained of his life. He did not deserve the truth of how I died." She makes clear that she has not and will not ever forgive him. But in letting go the need to inflict pain, she realizes there is "still good in" her, and she is more alive than she knew. Gay avoids the pat outcome of a Disney tale and, in an emotional and unforeseen twist, does the Grimms one better. In this fable, the princess and a wicked witch relate to each other as real women do, and ultimately rescue each other. Perhaps Haiti, too, is a beautiful princess, well-versed in the vagaries of men, still searching for a happily ever after. 'I was the woman . . . who carefully stripped herself of her memories so she could survive.' HOLLY BASS is a poet and multidisciplinary artist whose work has been presented at the Kennedy Center, the Smithsonian Institution and elsewhere.

Copyright (c) The New York Times Company [May 11, 2014]
Review by Booklist Review

*Starred Review* While we give merely cursory thought to what the kidnappings of the wealthy in impoverished nations might entail, rising star Gay exposes the full horror of this intimate crime and stealthy weapon of social decimation in her superbly written and excoriating first tale of terror and suspense. Set in Haiti, where Gay, the child of Haitian immigrants, spent her summers, the novel opens with Miami-based attorney Mirelle visiting her rich and influential parents with Michael, her white Nebraskan husband, and their baby son. The family is heading to the beach when they're ambushed by men with machine guns, who drag Mirelle away. Sharp-tongued and aggressive under normal circumstances, Mirelle is furious, though she believes this business transaction will be quickly completed. Instead, her proud and ruthless father refuses to pay the ransom, and she stubbornly refuses to beg. Her enraged captors retaliate with an endless siege of rape and torture. Gay contrasts the brutality of the present with the romantic past as traumatized yet stoic Mirelle remembers her and Michael's rocky courtship, unlikely love, and the reactions of their very different families. Gay is a daring and transfixing storyteller, depicting with valor and deep intent hellishly intrusive violence, shocking betrayal, and psychological devastation, the poison fruits of prejudice, injustice, greed, and desperation. Ferocious, gripping, and unforgettable.--Seaman, Donna Copyright 2010 Booklist

From Booklist, Copyright (c) American Library Association. Used with permission.
Review by Publisher's Weekly Review

In Gay's debut novel, protagonist Mireille is living a charmed life with a fulfilling law career, a loving husband, a baby son, and a beautiful Miami home. But on a family visit to her wealthy parents in Haiti, she is kidnapped and held for ransom for 13 horrifying days, during which she is tortured, starved, and gang-raped. Finally freed, she struggles to overcome the trauma and put the shattered pieces of her life back together. Reader Miles's portrayal of Mireille is nothing short of phenomenal. As Mireille describes her ordeal, her voice struggles to stay calm and neutral, the occasional tremor or sob revealing the anguish that lies under her thin veneer of control. Describing how she fought her captors, her voice is full of fierce, wild rage; at other times, it falls to a whisper, empty and hopeless. Miles also creates authentic, memorable voices for the other characters, including the brutal, Haitian-accented "Commander" and Lorraine, Mireille's practical, Midwestern mother-in-law. Her breathtaking performance is not to be missed. A Black Cat paperback. (Sept.) © Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved.

(c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved
Review by Library Journal Review

Mireille Duval Jameson, a young lawyer from one of Haiti's richest families, leads a charmed life living in Miami with her engineer husband, Michael, and their young son. Then she is kidnapped and held for ransom while visiting her parents in Haiti. For 13 days the headstrong Mireille suffers unbelievable horrors while waiting for her father to pay for her release. In vivid detail, Gay (Ayiti) tells the story mostly in Mireille's voice, weaving much of her life story into the day-to-day accounts of terror and cruelty during her captivity. Once released, the broken Mireille, suffering from PTSD, trusts no men, not even Michael. While Gay skillfully depicts Mireille's suffering both during and after the kidnapping, the book's unremitting narrative of pain is difficult to listen to, raising doubts about the necessity of so much graphic violence. Robin Miles's clear and expressive reading captures the emotional atmosphere that pervades the book. VERDICT Literary fiction fans will appreciate this book's frank depiction of wealth and its perils. ["Not since Charlotte Perkins Gilman's "The Yellow Wallpaper" has an author so effectively captured the descent into mental instability," read the starred review of the Black Cat: Grove Atlantic hc, LJ 2/1/14; see also "Best Books 2014: Top Ten,"]-Nancy R. Ives, SUNY at Geneseo (c) Copyright 2015. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.

(c) Copyright Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.