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
Source: Bought it with my own money!