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Reviewed by:
  • An Untamed State by Roxane Gay
  • Régine Michelle Jean-Charles
An Untamed State. By Roxane Gay. New York: Black Cat, 2014. ISBN 0802122515. 368 pp. $16.

Roxane Gay’s first novel, An Untamed State, contains many of the typical themes found in contemporary literature by Haitian Americans living in the diaspora. She explores the myth of return, the fraught relationship between generations navigating the cultural shifts from homeland to hostland, cross-cultural marriage, and the gaping chasm between the rich and the poor in Haiti. The novel’s first sentence frames it within the fairytale genre, suggesting an attention to form that will be maintained throughout: “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” (1). The fairy tale that is simultaneously elaborated and deconstructed is about Mireille Duval Jameson, whose supposedly perfect life is irrevocably altered after she is kidnapped by gunmen. Held for thirteen days, she is beaten, tortured, and repeatedly raped. Despite the many other themes present throughout, the novel functions primarily as a rape narrative that describes Mireille’s captivity and her stumbling attempts to put her life back together in the aftermath.

In my work on representations of sexual violence, I have argued for analyzing the rape victim/survivor narrative as a genre unto itself that privileges the perspective of the survivor and refuses to use rape as a symbol for something else.1 These narratives often do little to render the violence of rape manageable for the reader. They devote careful attention to the intricacies of rape trauma syndrome—what the survivor experiences before, during, and after the rape. Ultimately these narratives refuse to simplify the healing process (which is never straightforward and almost always incomplete) for the victim/survivor of rape. An Untamed State deploys many of these strategies. As an example of the brutal force of rape that is unrelenting, Gay’s novel exemplifies the expository act of writing sexual violence. Most notably, the first two hundred pages present the details of the kidnapping. The violence is described in unremitting detail that makes the reader want to turn away while also causing us to be drawn more deeply into the atmosphere of the novel.

The kidnapping that sets the plot into motion occurs on an idyllic day in Port-au-Prince just as Mireille, her American husband Michael, and their infant son exit the high gates of the lavish Duval family home en route to the beach. Mireille is snatched from the car and brought to an [End Page 203] obscure location where she is held for thirteen days. This length of time is due to the fact that her father refuses to pay the $1,000,000 ransom, fearful that the kidnappers will come back for more after he pays. The first part of the novel seems to mirror the days of captivity, gang rape, physical violence, and torture that Mireille is forced to endure; the scenes of violence describing Mireille’s ordeal are graphically relayed. Mireille is raped, gang-raped, burned, and beaten. She attempts to escape and is dragged back.

An Untamed State is about the actual kidnapping itself, but even more about its aftermath: Mireille’s physical, psychological, and emotional brokenness (which she refers to as her death), the irreparable damage done to her relationship with her parents, her inability to return to the life she had before, and the calamitous results in her marriage. She suffers from telltale signs of rape trauma syndrome in the form of triggers, intense feelings of shame, disassociation, and sexual “acting out.” We are taken through the different phases of her emotional, physical, and mental states. At first Mireille fights for her life, repeating her father’s mantra to herself: “There is nothing I cannot get through if I try hard enough” (34). She threatens her captors: “My husband is going to kill you. He is going to tear you apart with his bare hands” (39–40). She fights. “I fought him and he laughed...