Review: An Untamed State by Roxane Gay
“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.”
Fairy tales are intricate, fictional concoctions. They possess the illusion of fantastic joy. In them, dreams come alive, and time is distant. Establishing the happenings as occurring “once upon a time” separates us. These kinds of stories are for everyone: they are told to children; they are told to adults. What fairy tales actually unveil are not the commonly perceived happy lives of princes and princesses. Instead, they mask the horrors of reality and make life seem approachable—even magical. An Untamed State by Roxane Gay is a fairy tale that refuses to work under any façade. Gay’s debut novel dives into the horrors of captivity, abuse, and fear, and she does this while we frantically turn the pages, searching for the happy ending.
Mireille Duval James is both the victim and heroine of An Untamed State. She has money, an education, and a family. None of these things are to be taken lightly because they are the essentials to a perfect life for any person in today’s society. To stress, not only does Mireille have these things, but she has them—she is rich, very successful in her occupation, and desperately in love with her husband. Such privilege makes her abduction all the more impossible. The unfeasible happens in fairy tales, though. In the opening scene, while Mireille and her American husband and son are visiting family in Haiti, attackers swarm their vehicle. Blood flies and chaos ensues. Mireille is a hostage.
With Mireille in captivity, two central struggles occur. The first involves Mireille and her will to live. Her kidnappers are not kind. They beat her. They rape her. Her life of pleasure is certainly a thing of the past, but she hopes to find it again. Her dream of a fairy tale ending—one in which she’ll be reunited with her successes and loves—is what keeps her alive. Constantly, she has the reminder to “stay strong.” She fights and claims, “You cannot tame me. Know that.” Internally, she admits to us, “I wanted to beg for mercy but again I did not.” In most narratives, a character in Mireille’s predicament would become the stereotypical damsel-in-distress, but not here, not in Gay’s world. Mireille has the determination to save herself from her enemies.
The second struggle in An Untamed State involves Mireille’s family. The kidnappers set a ransom, but her father refuses to cave to the demands. He is too prideful and too successful to be a victim. He sees himself as untouchable, as his own selfish hero. His actual role is hardly heroic. Mireille’s husband takes on his wife’s persona when she is away. He, like her, fights. He wants to be the knight and save his wife, but this is where the fairy tale stops: he can’t. This isn’t about the men around Mireille. This is about the woman inside herself.
Gay’s structure allows us to feel Mireille’s complex battle in a dualistic manner. The first half is a suspense-filled thriller, but the second half transforms into a deep analysis of mental stability and consequences. Simultaneously, we get a detailed plot and an exquisite character study.
The vibrancy of the details is so rich and multifaceted, and the pacing is simply sublime. An Untamed State manages to tackle themes of fear, survival, hope, love, peace, corruption, and deception. Somehow, it doesn’t get lost or jumbled along the way; instead, Gay handles everything masterfully. If there is a perfect debut, this is it.
Once upon a time, Roxane Gay wrote a debut novel that set the pace for other writers to follow. It was layered and brilliant, and people read it over and over and over again. On the street, book-lovers asked one another what was brilliant. What needed to be read? Voices replied in three words: An Untamed State. People talked about it for ages, and passed it on to others when they were ready. For some, it inspired. For others, it entertained. Gay’s novel lived a long, long time for readers to admire and to cherish. The End.