Kirkus Reviews QR Code
AN UNTAMED STATE by Roxane Gay Kirkus Star


by Roxane Gay

Pub Date: May 6th, 2014
ISBN: 978-0-8021-2251-3
Publisher: Black Cat/Grove

A harrowing and emotionally cleareyed vision of one woman’s ordeal during and after her kidnapping in Haiti.

Gay’s remarkable debut novel is mostly narrated by Mireille, who, as the story opens, is visiting her native Haiti from Miami with her husband and infant son when she’s forcibly abducted by a gang and held for 13 days. She was a target because her father heads a highly profitable construction firm, and his resistance to paying ransom baffles Mireille’s U.S.-born husband, Michael; meanwhile, she’s repeatedly beaten and sexually assaulted by her captors. Gay’s characters are engineered to open up conflicts over gender, class (Mireille’s family is wealthy in a poor country) and race (Mireille is black and Michael is white). But Gay’s dialogue complicates rather than simplifies these issues. As a prolific essayist and critic, Gay (Writing/Eastern Illinois Univ.) has developed a plainspoken, almost affectless style, which serves her heroine's story well: The more bluntly Gay describes Mireille's degradations, the stronger the impact. Gay’s depiction of Mireille’s emotional trauma after her release is particularly intense, precisely capturing her alienation from her own identity that followed the kidnapping and the self-destruction that spilled out of her sense of disconnection. The novel alternates between past and present, and flashbacks to Mireille's childhood and marriage underscore the intelligence and emotional ferocity she accessed to survive her ordeal. (She persistently supported in-laws who were initially inclined to dismiss her.) The closing chapters suggest that Mireille is on the path to recovery, but it’s also clear that a true recovery is impossible; many of Gay’s scenes deliberately undermine traditional novelistic methods of resolution (baking bread, acts of vengeance, acting out sexually). Among the strongest achievements of this novel is that Mireille’s story feels complete and whole while emphasizing its essential brokenness.

A cutting and resonant debut.