Thursday, August 7, 2014

An Untamed State - Ferociously Powerful

Roxane Gay ( has been receiving some tremendous press for the past few months, not to mention an op-ed in last Sunday's "New York Times." If you have the stomach for it, you'll understand why when you read her novel, "An Untamed State," just out from Grove Atlantic.

The dedication page says, "For women, the world over." As you read you may ask yourself why a woman would write about so much shocking violence, aimed at one woman in particular, and then tell you that it's dedicated to you. You may reject it, as I almost did, but you'd be wrong to do so. The point is that women are subjected to subversive violations every day. We shrug and move on. Choose your battles, we say. But, if we are faced with the day when we may need to fight, can we? Will we?
In a country like Haiti, the very thought of the divide between the haves and the have-nots is ludicrous. No matter how lost the middle class is in the United States, we simply cannot comprehend the poverty and hopelessness of a battered place like Haiti. It is understandable that some might want to wipe that smug look off the faces of the matrons who hide behind their sunglasses, speed through town in their air conditioned limos, and glide behind the gates of their walled compounds to sterile safety.
Still, I was not prepared for the opening chapter, when Haitian born Mireille, her American husband Michael, and their newborn son Christophe, visiting her family's home in Port au Prince, are surrounded and attacked only feet from their fenced driveway. In astoundingly vivid detail, Roxane Gay ratchets up your blood pressure, as a band of young terrorists drag Mireille from her car, little Christophe screaming in the background.
Kidnappings, as we know too well from the news media, is a standard means of extracting money from wealthy families in third world countries. Often, victims are returned supposedly unharmed, but the crimes continue. Mireille will not be so lucky. Her father, Sebastien Duval, is a wealthy developer in Haiti. Perhaps, because he had pulled himself up from poverty, Mr. Duval felt immune to the dangerous jealousy and resentment that can build in the hearts of men who have nothing.
Unwilling to play games with the kidnappers, Mr. Duval waits twelve long days to negotiate a settlement for his youngest, most loved daughter. Twelve days can be an eternity when one is being tortured. Even reading the specifics felt like too much, too long. Yet now, as I finish this excruciating novel, I realize that it had to be, if only to understand how Mireille survived by dividing herself into two people, the woman before the kidnapping, the tough, proud, Miami litigator, and the one who, though still alive, is dead to her family and to love.
This is an amazing novel. I read it in just two days. It is disturbing and may leave you feeling raw. It is a story of love and a failure of love. It is a story of a forgotten country that may be beyond help. It is a story of resilient women and the weakness of men. But most of all, it is a story of power and one woman's defiance, her refusal to allow her captors to hold power over her. It is a story that will be difficult to forget.

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