An Untamed State – A grueling tale of kidnap and redemption

by sophievllewellyn

Roxane Gay’s debut novel that centres on a woman’s struggle to survive a brutal kidnap in her native home of Haiti.

The story focuses on Mireille Duval Jameson, an American born daughter of a wealthy Haitian construction magnate. Mireille is kidnapped in broad daylight and held captive for 13 days by Haitian gangsters who are seeking some sort of retribution for economical equality.

Gay reveals her literary intent in the first sentence “Once upon a time, in a far-off land..” the passage cuts to the crux “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…They held me captive for 13 days”. The novel is set in the past tense, so as a reader we already know she survives, turning the standard thriller on its head – it’s not a story of murder it’s a story of what one woman’s body can endure as punishment from her farther’s supposed misdeeds.

Mireille is kidnapped at gun point whilst leaving the gates of her suburban secure family mansion. There are plenty of witnesses, neighbours and passers-by that cluster around and do nothing as she is whisked away in a black SUV with armed men as her toddler cries in the back of her car and her husband unconscious. The hopelessness and silent complicity also defines the reaction of Mireille’s family. In most contemporary stories, a father would do anything for his precious daughter and is usually oblivious to the ferocious and evil nature of the central villain. However in this circumstance it is down to her fathers unwillingness to give up on his own fairy tale that sets the events in motion. Towards the end of the novel he defends his actions by describing a neighbor who suffered a kidnapping repeatedly till they had nothing “I had to think about your mother, your sister, my sisters, the rest of our family,” he says. “Paying for you would sacrifice them too. It killed me to imagine what you were going through, but I am responsible for many lives.”

What impressed me so much about this book was Gay’s remarkable skill to portray the enormous pain and suffering Mireille endured throughout her captivity. The graphic rape and torture that she experiences made me repulse but I couldn’t turn away from her story. I couldn’t wait to finish the book, but I didn’t want the story to end.

An Untamed State beholds so many themes, being held against your will, the suffering that people go through due to social inequality and what people will do to fight for that equality. What is fair? There is one particular conversation between Mireille and “the Commander”, the leader of the men who have taken her, that really made me think. Whilst being held captive Mireille says to the Commander that neither herself or her family are to blame for Haiti’s problems, he counters with the accusation “You are complicit even if you do not actively contribute to the problem because you do nothing to solve it.” It made me think, to what degree are we our brothers keeper? What, if anything do the wealthy few in Haiti owe to the many poor?

The Commanders rage isn’t anything personal to Mireille, but to her father who made a fine living in the US, put all his children through education, lived his fairy tale life with his wife and then returned to his native Haitian land and built his construction empire. However Gay is never clear whether all of this is ill-gained or at a result of corruption, but the book strongly suggests that being wealthy in a country as poor as Haiti is inherently a crime. Mireille’s body is the “Untamed State” the landscape on which a political and economical war is waged by men who want to use it to fulfill their own ideological purposes. Gay really is a powerhouse of a writer in which she tells Mireille’s story sparingly and unflinching in its portrayal of spiritual and sexual violence.

Mireille’s story doesn’t end when she is released from captors, but really it is at it’s beginning. Trying to reconnect with her loving husband who doesn’t quite grasp the emotional and physical ordeal she was put through and her infant son who yearns for a mothers embrace but she just can’t bring herself to touch him as she feels “dirty”. Mireille also cannot come to terms with how her father who is supposed to love her abandoned her and her complicit mother who stood by him.

“An Untamed State” is the story of a willful woman attempting to get back to the person she was and how redemption can be found in the most unexpected of places