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. They held me captive for thirteen days. They wanted to break me. It was not personal. I was not broken. This is what I tell myself.
I know it’s a little early in the year, but I can’t see how An Untamed State won’t make my Best Books of 2016 list. A word of warning-if you open this book, be prepared to cancel your plans, because there is no way you’re moving until it’s done. And after that, you might still need a couple of hours and a stiff drink to recover from Roxane Gay’s stunning first book.
Although this book begins with a once upon a time, this is no fairy tale. There are no heroes in this story. Our damsel in distress isn’t rescued by her knight in shining armor. Instead, she just endures because that’s all she can do.
Set in modern day Haiti, the book tells the story of an American lawyer visiting her parents with her husband and son. Wealthy and happy, Mireille and her husband leave her parent’s gated compound to take their child to the beach. They’re barely outside the house when she’s abducted at gunpoint and hidden in the slums.
She ends up being held for thirteen long days, as her father’s vow to never pay kidnappers is tested. As her kidnappers are forced to wait, they lash out against her (thirteen men and one woman. Whatever you’re thinking happened, yeah that happened). Mireille’s bravado is quickly stripped away, followed soon by her humanity.
Between rapes, the commander of the group likes to talk political philosophy with Mireille. His issue isn’t with her but with her father a self-made millionaire in the construction business. Mireille has lead a life of privilege, he accuses, and has no idea how the majority of Haitians live. These kidnappings aren’t just material, they’re a sloppy attempt to rectify the economic inequality in this country. As her captors and her father butt heads, it’s clear that neither of their ideologies have time to consider the humanity of the female captive.
If this were a lesser book, the story would end with Mireille’s freedom, kissing her husband and holding her baby. But An Untamed State continues, as Mireille tries to pick up the shattered pieces of her life. She feels like she died in captivity. She can’t be touched, not even by the doctors. Her relationship with her husband is in tatters. He means well, but can’t understand that her ordeal isn’t over and they’re unable to relate with each other. Her relationship with her parents is even worse.
An Untamed State isn’t for everyone. It’s brutal and unflinching in its portrayal of rape, abuse and PTSD. But if you do decide to pick it up, it’s the kind of book that will stick with you. There are no easy answers, no happily ever after, just a woman trying to figure out how to live after she stopped thinking she was dead.