For some reason, I resisted the allure of Roxane Gay for a long time because the self-confessed Bad Feminist seemed too good to be true. Funny, educated, whip-sharp, flawed, honest: there was a lot of hype getting my hopes up and I kind of didn’t want to get drawn in to be let down. Plus, there’s this idea that ratting on feminism can make you money that I’m not really down with: that marking yourself out as different to ‘those’ hairy-pitted man-hating feminists over there means you can be sexy, be desired, but still chuck a tanty for equal pay. Well, thank God I got over that. While I still haven’t read Bad Feminist so can’t comment on how bad of a feminist Gay is (apparently excellent), before the whirlwind around her collection of essays Gay wrote An Untamed State: a commanding, stunning, awful story, so beautifully and painfully told. This is just such a good book, it left me breathless and broke my heart.
Mirelle Duval Jameson is a Haitian-American in a fairy-tale life. As the youngest daughter of one of Haiti’s most successful and powerful men, she and her American husband are visiting her parents in Port-au-Prince with their infant son. Held up by gunpoint by a gang of men in broad daylight outside her parents’ compounded home, Mirelle is kidnapped for ransom. Held by a man who calls himself the Commander, she waits.
The story is unsettling, and it should be. Caught up in the standoff between her father’s refusal to pay and the Commander’s business-like cruelty, her captivity stretches into days. Gay has a sharp perception of experience: the way she has captured the sensory detail of Mirelle’s capture and suffering is horrific in its reality. At a commanding pace she draws a vivid psychological portrait of mental and physical trauma.
I was returned to my cage, locked inside. I was a bloody beast. My cage was madly hot. I held the air in my hands, tried to shape into something that might save me. I was naked, my clothes in a neat pile on the floor…My body throbbed as I dressed, as I tried to cover what could not be covered. Everything hurt. My breasts were so full of milk, I thought my skin might stretch so thinly, they would burst open.
The narrative is relentless, just when you think there is a limit to the suffering inflicted upon Mirelle, a new avenue is opened. She reaches into her depths to find solace, to find strength, and emerges dead inside. The horror is so real, so finely wrought that you think Gay will run out of ways to express it, but the horrific imagination and appetites of the Commander find new indignities for his captive. It’s harrowing and horrible, but Gay manages the story-telling expertly, knowing when to zoom in, to detail the savagery, and when to zoom out, showing Mirelle’s capacity to escape, to remember her past, and to hold on.
Through the way she is drawn, Mirelle immediately becomes a relatable character because of the very real rendering of her womanhood and the lived-in sensuous reality of her experience. There is an infuriating unjustness in the sheer cruelty Mirelle suffers, the bodily indignity and pain; but there is also an unnerving interrogation of notions of privilege and power: the Commander is powerful because he is a man, Mirelle is powerful because of her education and financial security, her husband is powerful because he is white, and her father rules over them all, believing the legitimacy of his own power because he feels he earned it. Gay brilliantly balances the nuance in what could have been a straight-up smack-in-your-face kind of a story. The emotional power and riveting insight are patterned so as not to fatigue the reader, but never forgive the perpetrators.
An Untamed State is an incredible book: dark, gripping, wrenching, with a sensuous brutality. Gay just tells the story like you could be there, which makes it all more painful to read. There is a managed, intelligent undercurrent throughout the narrative, balancing the unflinching pain with memory, strength, and beautifully wrought moments of observation. It left me breathless, having to stop to give myself space, but I compulsively read on, pulled along by the incredible writing, the unflinching story. It’s awful and beautiful and demands to be read.