Recommended Reading: An Untamed State, by Roxane Gay

Critics have been calling Roxane Gay’s An Untamed State* “breathless” and “gripping” and “harrowing.” They’re right.

Tom Perrotta sums it up best: “An Untamed State is a harrowing, suspenseful novel about the connections between sexual violence and political rage, narrated in a voice at once traumatized and eerily controlled. Roxane Gay is a remarkable writer, an astute observer of Haitian society and a deeply sympathetic, unflinching chronicler of the compromises people make in order to survive under the most extreme conditions.”

Here’s the summary from the publisher:

Mireille Duval Jameson is living a fairy tale. The strong-willed youngest daughter of one of Haiti’s richest sons, she has an adoring husband, a precocious infant son, by all appearances a perfect life. The fairy tale ends one day when Mireille is kidnapped in broad daylight by a gang of heavily armed men, in front of her father’s Port au Prince estate. Held captive by a man who calls himself The Commander, Mireille waits for her father to pay her ransom. As it becomes clear her father intends to resist the kidnappers, Mireille must endure the torments of a man who resents everything she represents.

An Untamed State is a novel of privilege in the face of crushing poverty, and of the lawless anger that corrupt governments produce. It is the story of a willful woman attempting to find her way back to the person she once was, and of how redemption is found in the most unexpected of places.

I’m having a difficult time writing about the novel, which is unsurprising since I’m pretty sure that my usually low blood pressure was elevated to unhealthy levels while I was reading it. On every level –plotting, pacing, dialogue, characterization — the novel is pitch perfect. The subject matter simply makes it extraordinary difficult to read. An Untamed State is photo (87)an important book, because it lays bare the traumas —  emotional, sexual, racial, economic — that we don’t like to think about because of their painful nature.

One of my favorite people once asked me why I (sometimes) read fiction that’s so dark, that imagines such terrible things — isn’t there enough violence and sorrow in the world already? The news — no matter where you live — seems always to be showing us some new predator, some new house of horrors. No hometown is safe, not mine and not yours. People are ferocious creatures.

It’s a valid question, and I’ve struggled to find the right answer. I don’t read horror (rest easy, I’m not talking about Stephen King) or watch torture-porn (Saw, etc.) because I take no pleasure in being frightened, in watching the pain of others; it seems to me that no-one is served by that kind of violence. And I cannot watch those police procedurals that show only the aftermath of violence. I believe the creators of these shows have good intentions: to try to offer even a small measure of justice for victims and to draw attention to the impact and extent of sexual violence, but these shows never tell the full story.

But books like An Untamed State, Louise Erdich’s The Round House, and Evie Wyld’s All the Birds, Singing (and there are many more) give voice to victims and survivors of violence, particularly sexual violence, which has been so deeply stigmatized for so very long. We cannot expect real-life survivors to relive or retell their experiences for us — though we should be very, very grateful when they do — and so fiction offers us a way to empathize with survivors without infringing on their privacy. Fiction gives us access to thoughts and emotions with nuance and depth that can’t be conveyed on a screen; books contain enough pages to tell what comes after, and what came before.

Rory, in her review of Cynthia Bond’s Ruby (another difficult-but-necessary novel), pointed to an essay by Ms. Bond in which she discussed her own experience (scroll down to find the essay), and these words have stayed with me every since: “Somewhere along the way, working with at risk and homeless youth in Los Angeles for 15 years, living with my own abuse, and hearing stories of such pain and torment, I thought—If you can bear to have lived it, I can at least bear to listen.”

Exactly. I read An Untamed State because somewhere out there, someone has lived it. And I can at least bear to listen.

* I received a copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review.


RAINN (Rape, Abuse, and Incest National Network):

National Violence Against Women Research Prevention Center:

What Men Can Do to Stop Violence Against Women:


12 thoughts on “Recommended Reading: An Untamed State, by Roxane Gay

  1. You said it so perfectly, Carolyn! I must memorize those words for the next time someone asks me why I read difficult stories. I also read Rory’s review of Ruby, and remember that quote from the author. I love, love, love this review!

    • Thanks, Naomi. I wish I’d been able to write more coherently about the novel itself; the secondary characters are wonderful, and there’s a surprising and deeply affecting relationship between Mireille and her mother-in-law.

  2. A compelling book and a compelling post, Carolyn. You nailed it. I get that a lot too, the question of why I read such dark stories. Well, people don’t actually ask me that (I wish they did); I just feel it when I recommend an important book or a book dealing with a heavy theme and the response I often get is, “I don’t want to read that/I don’t want to cry. There’s enough pain in real life and I just want to read something happy.” I get that but at the same time I think that by avoiding these kinds of stories we deprive ourselves of the chance to empathize and learn from another person’s experience. I love your quote at the end and it expresses what I’ve never been able to articulate.

    • I have that same kind of response (I don’t want to see that!) about movies/ tv shows, but for the reasons I mentioned, I don’t feel too bad about it. Books offer us so much more room to think. Thanks for commenting, Cecilia! Only one person has ever asked me this question, but she’s really important to me and I respect her as a reader, so I wanted to answer it thoughtfully.

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  7. Just discovered this review, Carolyn! I agree with everyone else–I love that quote! Though I typically avoid anything this dark and descriptions of such demented behavior/abuse, I met Roxane Gay and decided I could trust her. I ended up feeling okay at the end, given that she does spend quite a while describing the aftermath and attempted recovery for the abused woman. I especially appreciated the interpersonal relationships among family (biological and in-laws). I love Gay’s writing and have since inhaled everything she’s published and have now been honored to hear her speak and talk with her personally twice! I have nothing but respect, appreciation, and love for such a brave woman! I have not yet posted a review, but if I do, will definitely include a link to yours! (If that’s okay…)

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