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. (p. 7, iPad iBooks e-edition)
The beginning to Roxane Gay's debut novel, An Untamed State, is one of those rare introductions that summarizes a novel's content in such a fashion that not only is the reader informed of what the story will be about, but also how it will be presented. I found myself pausing for several minutes, bracing myself for what I thought would follow next. How mistaken I was, as An Untamed State defies easy categorizations. Like our lives, traumas, and rebuilding efforts, it is not a neat, cut-and-dry affair. Instead, it is visceral, making the reader confront a whole host of issues, including sexual violence, that s/he might rather leave aside for another day.
The story opens with a young couple, Mireille, a daughter of a rich self-made Haitian constructor and a Miami-based lawyer, and her Midwestern-born husband, Michael, and their son, Christophe leaving her parents' gated mansion when their car is almost immediately surrounded by three black Land Cruisers. Mireille is taken captive and a message is sent to her father, pay $1 million in ransom or else.
For the first half of An Untamed State, there are alternating chapters between Miri's captivity and the depravations (gang rape, burns, mutilations) that she endures and the "before" of her life, especially how she came to fall in love with a white engineer while she was in law school. Gay is unsparing in both the captivity and in the story of her courtship, showing flawed yet dynamically human characters. Take for instance this scene about a third into the novel, where one of her captor/rapers has a conversation with her about class and Miri's reaction, after being repeatedly tortured/raped for days, to this:
When he reached me, he traced the bruises on my face. "I've always wondered what it would be like to be with someone like you. I see you women, how you wear your designer clothes and your beautiful shoes and your dark sunglasses, your French perfumes. It's like the shit of this place doesn't touch you. You never see me but I am there, watching. You are all so beautiful." He pressed his lips against mine. I shrank from him, from the insistent heat of his tongue, the way he wet my mouth with his. "You are beautiful," he whispered, hotly.
He kept caressing my face. The gentleness of his touch over my broken skin made me shiver, broke me further. He kissed my forehead. His lips were cool. His fingers were soft and warm. If I closed my eyes, it would be easy to pretend the man before me was a lover, that our bodies belonged together.
I fought him. I swallowed the pain. I did not close my eyes. (p. 79)Too often sexual abuse can be a cheap plot device, something that is inflicted upon some poor, unfortunate woman, with the focus being more on how the men around her act and not on her own internal conflicts during and after the assault/s. This is not the case in An Untamed State. Graphic as the sexual and physical assaults are, they serve a purpose other than showing a broken doll, one that is to be avenged/mourned over by others. Miri endures these assaults, struggling as much as she can to keep some part of herself "alive." She believes herself to succumb in the end to "the Commander's" wish to break her to spite her father for his intransigence in refusing to pay her captors the ransom that they have demanded.
Yet Miri is both stronger and weaker than she realizes. After she freed, the second half of the novel details her struggle to rebuild herself, to live again after "dying" in Port-au-Prince. Her husband and father do not understand her; she struggles to love the former and has become estranged from the latter. The relationships that Gay developed in the flashback chapters of Part I take on new forms in Part II. Here, the reconstruction of a life shattered by horrific sexual traumas rises to the fore. Gay does not skimp on the struggles Miri endures in the years following her kidnapping and gang rapes. The reader wants to feel empathy for Miri, but Gay does not make it easy, as she confounds reader expectations about how the aftermath of rape will unfold, showing us instead loving characters who unwittingly wound each other gravely. It makes for an unsettling, uncomfortable read, but one that is an eye-opening experience for those who have not loved someone who has endured such abuse.
Typically, such detailed description of a novel's plot progression can weaken the reader's subsequent experience with the story, but in the case of An Untamed State, the way Gay has constructed her scenes and characters insures that no matter how much information is provided beforehand, the reader will likely find herself stunned by the emotional power within its pages. The prose and characterizations are so directly eloquent and "true to life" that reading An Untamed State is more an act of witness than a reading of a text. It is one of those rare novels that seems to have seared itself upon my memory and that perhaps is the greatest compliment that I can pay to it.