Roxane Gay’s An Untamed State follows the heartbreaking story of a woman kidnapped and held in captivity for 13 days in Port-au-Prince, Haiti.
Mireille is the youngest Haitian-American daughter of a wealthy Haitian family. While on vacation to her family’s homeland with her husband, Michael, and child, Christophe, Mireille is snatched from the car her husband is driving to the beach and locked in a cage.
This is normal in Haiti – kidnapping a wealthy person, demanding a ransom, having that ransom paid, and then releasing the prisoner. Unfortunately for Mireille, her father is not the average wealthy Haitian. Having built his success in America, Mireille’s father has a chip on his shoulder, is prideful to a fault. He refuses to pay the ransom, worrying about how giving in too easily to these criminals will affect the rest of his family’s safety.
And so, Mireille waits. For what? Her father to come to his senses? Her captors to have mercy, even though she does not ask for it? She remains strong, through the abuse that is rained upon her during those 13 days; though she has no idea when or if she’ll ever be set free. When she is set free, how can she ever escape what has been done to her in that cage in Haiti?
Please take caution when reading An Untamed State if any of the following topics may trigger you:
- Sexual assault
- Kidnapping / abduction
- Pregnancy / childbirth
- Mental illness
An Untamed State is wildly beautiful and striking. This novel is unlike any fiction I’ve read because Gay’s writing is so precise, practical, and piercing (forgive my alliteration). She writes without flowery descriptions and distractions, leaving nothing for the reader to focus on but the truth of the scene.
A prevalent theme throughout the novel is identity and nationality – Mireille’s parents immigrated from Haiti to America and painstakingly built a life for their future family. Their children were born in America but spent every summer in Haiti, and so Mireille feels a strong attachment to her parents’ homeland. As her relationship with Michael progresses, she frets about whether he will love it as much as her, or if he will only see the extreme poverty and its stark contrast with the way her wealthy family lives.
Mireille and Michael’s blossoming relationship is told in between scenes of violence as she is held in captivity. She reminisces on their early love, and how difficult it was for her to let herself be loved by another. Their story is beautiful and starkly contrasts the present situation Mireille is living.
Michael is white, but neither this nor any other obvious mention of race is found for over 100 pages. This is not something that’s at all important to Mireille – who has been very privileged in her life thanks to her father’s hard work and dedication to his family. How purposefully Gay chooses to discuss race is very unique. Yes, this novel is about race – Michael’s mother is skeptical of Mireille because of the color of her skin; Mireille’s father had to fight so hard every day to prove himself among the white Americans he worked with in his early days of success – and it’s also about economic inequality in Haiti, familial relationships and obligations, and the resiliency of women.
An Untamed State is one of the most touching and heartbreaking novels I’ve ever read. The subject matter is difficult in that Gay does not shy away from the specifics of Mireille’s abuse – and why should she? This happens in real life to real women in Haiti and other poverty-stricken nations. I highly recommend An Untamed State for its beautiful writing and exceedingly interesting and important themes and subject matter.
Thank you so much for taking the time to read my thoughts on An Untamed State. I’d love to hear your thoughts on the novel in the comments or at my Instagram, @bookmarkedbya!