Monday, January 19, 2015

An Untamed State by Roxane Gay

A woman attempts to recover from trauma

Mireille Duval Jameson, visiting her wealthy parents in Port-au-Prince, is kidnapped by a violent gang led by the Commander.  After her father tries to bargain down the ransom, Mireille is brutally gang raped for thirteen days until dad pays up. Once freed, Mireille is traumatized, unable to be comforted by her American husband and son. In order to heal, she must return to a family farm in the American heartland.

The book begins with the kidnapping, bang, no time wasted in exposition. However, An Untamed State very definitely is a literary novel. The literary part, however, the sensitive examination of an immigrant family, is welded onto the tale of a damsel in distress. The rape scenes, while brutal, are not titillating (at least not for a long time) and the reader sympathizes with Mireille -- at first she believes her wealth and connections are going to save her, then she realizes she is on her own. A key plot point, one that I didn't connect with, was Mireille’s anger at her father for delaying payment on the million dollar ransom. His points sounded completely reasonable to me.

The peripheral characters are sharply drawn, such as the careful depiction of the strong-willed immigrant parents.  A theme is the immigrants’s children being weaker than the tough parents who had to endure racism in a snowy country. Maybe this story is about a woman trying to break free of the tyranny of the father.  The shame of Haiti being a dump and Mireille's anger at the American husband clearly communicating his opinion that Haiti is a dump also works well. Certain other parts, however, especially the goopy passive nature of that Ken doll husband, did not work that well.  Also Mireille was more than a little bit of a princess.

The prose is sensible, not really workmanlike, more like unadorned, although I’m not sure if a single metaphor was used. If they were, they were used discreetly. Also, the story gets lost, a little dopey, after Mireille is freed from captivity. She is traumatized and spends a lot of time on the prairie wringing her hands, causing the forward momentum of the story to come to a halt.

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