Roxane Gay’s arresting debut novel “An Untamed State” tells the story of a Haitian-American woman kidnapped for ransom outside of her family’s estate in Port-Au-Prince. It contrasts lives of privilege with those of poverty, enviable romance with a breaking marriage, and raises questions about the value of life in a country that seems to be crumbling.
Gay is an assistant professor at Eastern Illinois University and the author of a short story collection “Ayiti” (2011). She has a large online presence on Twitter, Tumblr, and as a frequent contributor to The Rumpus and Salon. She is a Haitian American and the daughter of Haitian immigrants. That this is a real fairy tale, and not the Disney version, is stated by Gay from the first line. The book begins, “Once upon a time, in a far-off land, I was kidnapped by a gang of fearless yet terrified young men…” The narrator, Mireille Duval Jameson, is taken in broad daylight from her car right outside the gate of her parents’ home in front of her helpless husband and baby boy. Through flashbacks we experience the jarring contrast of Mireille’s almost saccharine love story with Michael, her “blan” Midwestern husband (as he is known in the Haitian dialect for whites), to her nightmare of being held captive by a group of lawless Haitian criminals, the leader of which calls himself the Commander. There is relentless violence in these scenes and so, the sections of Mirille and Michael’s courtship is a relief in a way, but there is always the tension of the knowledge that we will return to Mireille’s abuse.
We see the motif of fairy tales repeat itself in the rags-to-riches romance of her father and mother. “Once upon a time, my parents were strangers in a strange land and they found each other” But we also see cruelty and torment in the way Mireille’s captors violate her again and again. Because let’s not forget — evil is as much a part of fairy tales as good (Hansel and Gretel’s stepmother dropping them off in the woods; Snow White’s stepmother wanting to eat her liver and lungs; Rapunzel’s kidnapping and life trapped in a tower.)
Mireille’s release depends on her father paying the ransom, and the first half of the book is propelled by the tension of him refusing to pay. He is a principled man, and does not want to lose all he has worked for nor legitimize the demands of criminals. Her mother, who has devoted her life to her husband’s success, stands by powerless. The cost, his daughter’s life, raises the question of reality versus theory, and in Mireille and her father’s case, as with others in the book, it is uncertain how much strain their relationship can take. At one point in the book, Mireille’s father tries to explain his predicament, “If I paid, I had no way of knowing if they would return you. I had to think about your mother, your sister, my sisters, the rest of our family. Paying for you would sacrifice them too. It killed me to imagine what you were going through but I am responsible for many lives.”
After Mireille’s captors release her, the second half of the book shows her attempts to put her life back together, and it is agonizing to watch. We see the way Mireille’s self-destruction and fear controls her life in her refusals to see a desperately-needed doctor, a trip cross-country alone that highlights her vulnerable positions with strange men. At times it is questionable if Michael will be strong enough to help Mireille, “I don’t think anyone could step up to something like this. My wife was kidnapped but I went through something too.” But eventually we see life get better — Mireille gets help, her marriage heals, and she is able to be a mother again. But a therapist tells her, “You will get better but you will never be okay, not in the way you once were. There is no being okay after what you went through.” Mireille even returns to Haiti to confront her father and avenge her own death. She wants to end the “whole, filthy truth of my kidnapping, even the parts I hadn’t told Michael.” But she can’t do it. She forgives him, even though her mother sees right through it “You told him a kind lie.” As her explanation for forgiving her father, she tells Michael, “I didn’t want to lose whatever was left of the good in me.”
This book shows Haiti to be an impossible place to understand. At one point, Mireille explains to Michael “there is nowhere in the world both as beautiful and as ugly, as hopeful and as hopeless.” As “the kidnapping capital of the world,” it has protocols and professional negotiators. That the kidnapping is such a contrast to Mireille’s prior existence is only one of the many contrasts in this book: Mireille’s parents’ palatial grandeur vs. the decrepit conditions of most of the country; the strong and the weak characters in the book; the different worlds that Mireille and Michael are from (we see resistance from Michael’s mother, Lorraine, “We don’t get much of your kind around here.”) This book is a study of the beautiful with the terrible. Mireille herself calls her life pre-kidnapping “the before” and post “the after.” In this way, this book is about more than a woman finding the courage to go on after her life is changed forever. It is about salvation found in unexpected places, how dehumanizing circumstances can bend but not break someone, and about how lives that can’t be fairy tales are still worth living.
About the author:
Louise Krug is the author of Louise: Amended (2012), a memoir about the brain surgeries she had when she was 22. She teaches creative writing and composition at the University of Kansas in Lawrence, Kansas, where she lives with her husband and daughter. Some of her recent work has appeared in Parcel and Huffington Post. She has a collection of essays forthcoming from 99:The Press in 2015.