An Untamed State by Roxane Gay
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
Purchased at Chapters on Robson.
Read in May 2014.
Disclaimer: I am such a Roxane-with-one-N fangirl. I read everything she writes. I’m not objective at all when it comes to her writing.
Back in 2012, I read Ayiti, her story collection. An Untamed State grew from the standout of that collection, “Things I Know About Fairy Tales.” When I was looking for that post, I came across this Roxane quote from 4 years ago:
My parents will not consider me a real writer in a way they can truly understand until they can go to Barnes & Noble and find something I’ve written, not in an anthology, but with my name alone on the spine. My writing career is the least relevant thing about me when it comes to my family and friends. It’s not that they don’t care but honestly, they do not care.
The opening of An Untamed State is intense. The story goes right into the action, without any build-up. (Aside: take note everyone who likes to begin stories with their MC sitting around thinking to themselves.) Mireille is kidnapped in front of her parents’ house in Haiti. Her husband Michael and son Christophe are in the car with her, but they are not taken. She’s held for ransom because her father is wealthy, but he refuses to pay. Her captors begin raping her repeatedly.
In between these very intense scenes, the backstory is filled in via Mireille’s memories. I liked how this was structured because a) it was realistic (what else would she do alone in a room with nothing to do but escape into her head) and b) it pulled back from the tension a bit so it wasn’t relentless. Although, in its own way the backstory was intense, especially Mireille and Michael’s “fairy tale” romance.
The novel starts where “happily ever after” leaves off, playing off both the sunny Disney versions of fairy tales we’re all familiar with and the dark, twisted original stories that didn’t hesitate to make readers uncomfortable.
There is empathy for all the characters, which I loved, because people are gray and it annoys me when protagonists are portrayed as angelic and antagonists as evil. It’s too simplistic. So characters like Mireille’s father and the various captors are given the opportunity to show their humanity, and Miri is allowed to be flawed. She’s been criticized for being an “unlikable” character but real people are flawed, unlikable, prickly and you still empathize with them. At least, I hope you do? Because you don’t have to be perfect to deserve to be treated decently and not have terrible things happen to you. Honestly, when I think about the fictional characters I like the most, it’s always the ones I empathize with because of (not in spite of) their flaws. I like “unlikable” characters.
The overarching milieu of the story is rich country vs. poor country, rich vs. poor within a country, etc. and the tension between meritocracy, diying yourself to success vs. how much you should help others who can’t/won’t do what you did. But there are so many layers…
The story is in two parts, and in the second part, the After, Miri deals with how she can’t go back to how it was before. Reading this right after Speak was unintentional, but an interesting juxtaposition. Both have main characters who don’t deal with trauma the way society wants them to.
One aspect of the After is karma, or just kindness circling back. Miri was kind to her mother-in-law, Lorraine, when she was sick, even though Lorraine didn’t want her there, and now Lorraine is there for Miri when she needs help, even though Miri doesn’t want the help either. It addresses how sometimes the people who are supposed to be the closest to you (in Miri’s case, Michael) can’t give you what you need. Sometimes it’s someone a step away who is better able to care for you. Maybe it’s more objectivity? That they can see the forest and not be blinded by the trees, everything fraught from the past.