Friday, 23 October 2015

An Untamed State by Roxane Gay

An Untamed State is one of the most compelling novels I've read so far this year.
Gripping from the get go, Roxane Gay tells the story of Mireille, an American born woman kidnapped whilst holidaying with her family in her parent's home country, Haiti. For all intents and purposes Mireille has a perfect life, a happy life but it all comes crashing down on that fateful day when she is violently snatched from her husband and young son outside of her parent's home in Haiti.
The subject matter being dealt with in this book is a tough one... Writing about kidnapping can be hard as you don't want to cross a line but at the same time you want to try and make the story authentic. Roxane Gay crossed lines, but in a good way, and the story felt like the most authentic kidnapping I have read. Having said that, there are a number of parts in this book that can be hard to get through, with graphic scenes of both a violent and a sexual nature. Those aren't things people can always read easily, and even if you aren't fazed by those kinds of scenes, they still aren't easily read, so if you fall in to the category who would rather not expose themselves to such scenes then I would say to steer clear of An Untamed State as a large portion of the book is hard to read given those scenes.
I know very little about Haiti, but the book portrays it as a place where kidnappings are basically a regular business transaction. A girl is taken from a wealthy family, the family pay and the girl is given back. Except Mireille's father doesn't pay, he is a man of his own principles and believes if he does not pay his daughter will be returned anyway. He also believes his daughter is strong enough to get through her ordeal; her gut wrenching ordeal that lasts thirteen days.
There is so much emotion that goes in to reading this book. Seeing Mireille fall to pieces, crumble away from the person she once was, forget her loved ones and the life she once had, is heart breaking. Mireille's father is right about one thing, she is strong, and seeing her come out the other side of her kidnapping is what marks this book up in my estimation. I'm glad the author allowed us to see both sides of the story, and kept the experience as real as possible throughout.
Roxane Gay used a really good writing technique throughout the first part of the book where we saw Mireille present day, being held captive and going through some of the worst possible things imaginable, but flitting backwards and forwards between that and Mireille's life before the kidnapping - growing up as a child, learning of the family that surrounds her, seeing her fall in love with her husband, expanding her family. The love that she is surrounded by in these parts are a stark contrast to her current state of life; this contrast only makes her ordeal all the more shocking.
I don't want to say I enjoyed the story being told, given its nature, but I did enjoy the book as well as Roxane Gay's writing. However, the reason I have only given An Untamed State four stars, not five, is because of the dialogue. Whilst I wholeheartedly fell in to the story, believing all the words told, even forgetting it was fiction at points, a lot of the dialogue - particularly between Mireille and her husband, Micheal - didn't feel real. To me it didn't seem like how a husband and wife would interact, especially after all they had been through together, both pre and post kidnapping. That was literally the only thing that let this book down for me, and if I did half stars, An Untamed State would be a 4.5 stars.
A lot goes in to An Untamed State, a lot I didn't even imagine when going in to this book blindly - it is more than a just a kidnapping and a class divide. An Untamed State explores love in a variety of ways, but especially a secretive way - the things we'll do, say and keep from our loved ones in order to protect them. There is more than just that though too, An Untamed State is a multi faceted novel that will stay with me for quite some time.
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6 comments

  1. It's tough to say that you appreciated a book without enjoying its content. I have been meaning to read this one and it sounds like it is similar to A Little Life - your heart gets really bruised while reading, but the story is thoughtful and well-written.

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    1. Haha, I think you worded that better than I managed to in my review!!

      I'll have to look in to A Little Life, I haven't heard of that. But you're quite right, your heart does get bruised even though the story is wonderfully well told.

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  2. I've only read Bad Feminist by this author so far and I would like to try this novel -- I think I need to be in the right frame of mind for such a tough story though. Sounds like a very worthwhile, if not easy, read.

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    1. This was my first time reading Roxane Gay, in fact I hadn't even heard of her until picking this one up, but she is a writer I'll be keeping an eye out for in the future.

      You definitely have to be a certain frame of mind to get through An Untamed State, but highly recommended.

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  3. oh wow, yeah kidnapping can be a very difficult subject to breech, I am glad that the author has managed to come away doing it right

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    1. Me too, it could have gone either of two ways, but I'm glad it was so well told.

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