Tuesday, January 20, 2015

An Untamed State by Roxane Gay

I've written about books that confront us--our ideals and stomach for violence--here on the blog before. I tend to enjoy these types of novels because they make me think about what I'm willing to accept in a book. What I'm willing to endure. Whether it's art or sensationalism. 

In the case of Roxane Gay's first novel, An Untamed State, the artfulness far outweighs the stomach-turning violence. I will warn you that if sexual violence is a trigger, you might want to give this one a pass. 

Mireille Duval Jameson is living a fairy tale. The strong-willed youngest daughter of one of Haiti’s richest sons, she has an adoring husband, a precocious infant son, by all appearances a perfect life. The fairy tale ends one day when Mireille is kidnapped in broad daylight by a gang of heavily armed men, in front of her father’s Port au Prince estate. Held captive by a man who calls himself The Commander, Mireille waits for her father to pay her ransom. As it becomes clear her father intends to resist the kidnappers, Mireille must endure the torments of a man who resents everything she represents. (from Goodreads)

There were a few things that struck me straight off when I jumped into reading this novel: it's compulsively readable and clicks along at a frenetic pace, and flashbacks to the main characters' lives and relationships give some breathing room amidst the violence of Miri's kidnapping. Gay doesn't shrink away from the heartrending violence of Miri's experience as a captive for 13 days. Without experiencing it with her, we couldn't heal with her when it's done. In this way, the book reminds me a bit of ROOM, by Emma Donoghue. The first half is the traumatic part. The second half is finding Miri's way back to life. 

What impressed me most of all was the way Gay weaves her themes throughout the novel. The title takes on new weight as we see the "state of things." The state of Haiti as a polarized country with a wide gap between the rich and poor. The state of the characters' relationships...fairy tale marriages--Miri's own and her parents'--put to the test by her kidnapping. Miri's mental state as she is tortured, broken. 

Fairy tales also play an important role in this novel. Note: this novel is not trying to overtly copy any fairy tale! Don't let that be a turn off. Holly Bass's review in the New York Times does an impeccable job of dissecting this facet of the novel, but it's a little spoilery, so I'd probably save it until you've finished reading. Basically, by framing this story with some discussion of fairy tales (and broken fairy tales), Roxane Gay makes a striking parallel to the fairy tales of old. Those Grimm Brothers and their peers didn't shy away from violence. For every happy ending there was rape, murder, incest, and any other kind of confronting action you can imagine. Gay gives them a run for their money. 

Alas, as hard as this book was to read at times, it was so worth it. I felt like I got a mental workout beyond what I could endure in the "confronting" department, and it was a quick, engrossing read. Win, win. 

Pub. Date: May 2014
Publisher: Grove Press
Format: E-book
ISBN: 0802122515
Source: Bought it with my own money!  




22 comments:

  1. Nothing sensational about this book. Violent though it is, it is all very well place and necessary. Thank goodness Gay interspersed the present with flashbacks - otherwise it would have been to much for me. But Gay does an awesome job at pacing and weaving everything together.

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    1. Definitely not, Tanya. I think her ability to make so many meaningful connections was my favorite part of the book. I'll definitely read anything she writes.

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  2. I also didn't think this book was sensational at all. The first part was actually my favorite - the roller coaster of her experience as a captive and then the story of her and Michael's romance (which I actually LOVED). It was this pinball machine of emotional intensity. The intensity letdown in the second half was a little bit of a downer for me, but I still really enjoyed (well, not sure if that's the right word...it was an amazing book that I loved reading, but maybe not so enjoyable?) the book.

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    1. I was surprised I liked the latter half as much as I did. I think I would've liked it less if it'd been a third person POV. Much more effective to be in her head and to know, for the most part, how she was processing the world around her. A very striking process, for sure.

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  3. This book sounds wonderful. Love the mix with the fairy tales. I've also written about violence and art. I sometimes wonder about the effect it has on one's brain -- you are consuming that violence whether it's artful or not. I understand Aristotle and all that --how great art offers catharsis, but I still wonder about the effects of vicarious trauma. It doesn't keep me from reading about violence. It just keeps me questioning myself.-

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    1. That's a great question, Barbara. I think it is important to question how we process trauma...on TV, in books, etc. I haven't thought about it a whole lot up until now, but it's something I'll have in mind going forward.

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  4. I abhor sexual violence but it's reality for many, many people so it shouldn't be ignored. It sounds like this book is very well done.

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    1. Me too. It's one of the hardest things for me to read about, but so often, in the hands of a great writer, I feel like it's worthwhile. I haven't figured out that seemingly at-odds phenomenon yet. lol

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  5. I've had this one loosely on my radar for a while, but I think I'd have to be in the right mood to handle it. Room was freakin' awesome, but sitting down with it night after night felt like a kick in the gut. I don't like shying away from difficult subjects just 'cause they're difficult, though, so I will add this one to the ol' wishlist. Thanks, Andi!

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    1. Definitely have to be in the right mood. Gay's writing is so engaging. I hope you like this one if you get around to it, Meg!

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  6. An Untamed State was an amazing book. From the PTSD to everything else that the main character experienced, Gay got it all right.

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  7. Love this review! I have Untamed State on my list of books I didn't get to last year and your review makes me think I should read it sooner than later.

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  8. This book is just so incredible. I was so impressed with her ability to write about sexual violence in ways that never felt gratuitous or sensationalistic, the way she weaved the fairy tale theme into her narrative, and how she dissected the tension between privilege and desperation.

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  9. That's it. I'm done. I'll just link to this tomorrow instead of posting my review. LOL Brilliant review my dear.

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  10. I haven't read anything from her yet and as amazing reviews keep appearing I keep telling myself, you have to read her work! This year no matter what, I will!

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  11. This was one of the books to make my best-of 2014 list. It's so brilliantly executed and well-written, I just couldn't stop reading until I was done. I love the point you make about the fairy tales and how Gay gives the Grimm brothers and their collection a run for their money. I hadn't thought about it this way :)

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  12. Agreed on all points! I don't think I'll be forgetting this book for a long, long time and hope that it finds its way to many more readers...I think it's such an important story.

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  13. While the subject matter is difficult I agree that in the right writer's hands it can be done well. I'm keeping this in mind, and on the back burner for the right time to read it. You write a compelling review!

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  14. I tried to read this last week and I just couldn't. Sent it back to library. I'll try it again someday.

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  15. I do think confronting books can be good, pushing us out of our comfort zone and making us think about the world and the bad things that can happen in it. However, I personally really can't enjoy books with graphic violence, sexual or otherwise, so I think this is a book I'll be passing on. I'm glad you enjoyed this book and admire your ability to push yourself to read it. I'm definitely going to keep pushing my own boundaries and see if I can get to where I'm able to read books like this.

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  16. I often say I live in my own little happy bubble. I do listen to the news on the radio but shy away from the national news because it's nothing but terrible news. So I need to be reminded that there are awful things happening to people every day and ponder what that means about the state of the world we live in.

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  17. I have this one on the ereader so it's only a matter of time before I get to this one. Gay spoke a bit about rape and sexual abuse in Bad Feminist and I wonder how much of her experiences played into this novel. Haunting. But sounds well worth the read.

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