That’s what I thought when I first picked up An Untamed State by Roxane Gay. But I had read Bad Feminist and loved it, and I was dying to see what Gay could do with fiction. So, I bought the book, and I procrastinated.
There are so many books about rape, about broken bodies and broken women and the terror of a person’s dignity being ripped from her body and soul. There are too many books that take me too long to read because they’re just too hard to get through. Finally, An Untamed State found its way into my car on a camping trip, and I was compelled, if I wanted to read at all, to read the only book I had brought with me. And so I began, and once I did, I couldn’t put it down.
An Untamed State differs profoundly from so many of those other books I mentioned above that detail the destruction of the spirit and the grotesque actions taken against so many women and men. It differs because for the most part the book is told from the first person perspective of Mireille Jameson-Duval, a young wife and mother kidnapped in Haiti and held for a ransom her wealthy father is not wont to pay.
From the beginning, Mireille is a fighter, a resilient captive, something every woman who has ever been raped wishes she had been. In many ways, Mireille embodies this woman, this ideal survivor: someone who fights, someone who doesn’t let the most precious parts of herself be so easily taken, someone many women who experience rape aren’t even given the chance to be because of drugs, coercion, false security and bondage. For women everywhere who have experienced even a fraction of the pain that Mireille does in An Untamed State, the main character offers a sliver of redemption, a reason for the celebration of the strength of women despite their circumstances, despite what can be done to the body.
Though the book is riveting with action, what comes out most clearly are ideas of what it means to be raped, how it feels to be robbed of your dignity, and what the path to healing looks like. Gay, a survivor of rape herself, is able to capture these sentiments in a way that makes the novel less about the horrors that have happened to Mireille and more about Mireille, the person, the survivor, the woman. Unlike so many other books that merely describe graphic scenes with seemingly little purpose but to provide shock value and make the reader hate the criminal, An Untamed State focuses on what is happening on the inside for the survivor.
Mireille goes through feelings of guilt, self-hatred, inadequacy and hopelessness despite her strength. After her ordeal, she has an unending desire to be empty that manifests itself in an eating disorder, she is unable to communicate with her family in the same way, she is fearful and hateful towards nearly all men, and she can’t seem to find herself. She experiences selective memory and symptoms of PTSD, flying through flashbacks that are set off by things as seemingly inane as a scent. Eventually a therapist tells Mireille the truth about her road to recovery: “You will get better, but you will never be okay, not in the way you once were.”
This is the truth of rape, of trauma, of loss of control over your own body, this is the truth that Mireille, that Roxane Gay, that every woman and man that has ever experienced any ordeal even resembling that of Mireille’s must accept. The sense of power, of hope and beauty despite the horror and ugliness in the world is what raises this novel from the depths of what could’ve been tragic and grotesque to the height of inspiration. An Untamed State gives those whose bodies have been stolen, morphed and used the hope and realization that they are not shattered. They may be cracked, they may wear scars, whether physical or not, but they have the capacity to live if they can find the will and the strength and perhaps even the vulnerability to allow those around them to help.
An Untamed State by Roxane Gay is one of the most fantastic novels of the past few years, and it is by far the most inspiring novel I’ve read in a long time.
Published by Black Cat, you can purchase An Untamed State at your local bookstore.