Thursday, October 10, 2019

Book 202: An Untamed State



"I held my hand close to the heat. I knew what it meant to burn, how it felt, how the right amount of heat can make your skin rise and how the pain rises with your skin until it spreads through you and when the pain starts to spread, it becomes easier to endure."

Dates read: January 17-20, 2018

Rating: 8/10

The first stories we learn are usually fairy tales. Cinderella, the little mermaid, Hansel and Gretel. We learn the sanitized, Disney-fied versions: simple stories, with unquestionably evil villains that create danger for our heroes but are vanquished at the end, usually with a moral to wrap things up in a bow. The original versions are usually darker...less redemption, more death. But the tales themselves have endured, even as they've changed, over time. Storytelling is basic human nature.

The theme of fairy tales, and the subversion of that theme, runs throughout Roxane Gay's debut novel, An Untamed State. American-born Mireille is visiting Haiti, where her parents are from and where they've returned in their later years, with her husband and newborn son. They're just leaving the gated compound where her family lives when they're suddenly accosted by kidnappers and Mireille is taken. They demand $1 million for her return, and she's held for 13 days before ransom is paid. During those 13 days, she's brutally raped and tortured, and the woman she is when she's released is a world away from the woman she was before.

We learn about her life through the memories she experiences while she's captive. How she grew up, watching her talented father chafe against the ways in which he was treated as "lesser than" because of his status as an immigrant. Her relationship with her siblings, especially her sister. The way she and her husband Michael met and fell in love. Their privileged life together in Miami, where she's an immigration attorney and he's an engineer. And then when she gets back, how very unable she is to resume that life. The second half of the novel relates Mireille's flight to Michael's family farm in Nebraska to heal...or more accurately, recover enough to be able to deal. The wounds she's suffered aren't the kind that really heal, after all.

The motif of fairy tales is everywhere, from the beginning, where the book literally opens with "once upon a time", to the end, in which Mireille is given the chance to confront one of her captors. When I first read it, the ending bothered me. It seemed too convenient, to tie things up too neatly. Life doesn't work that way, and otherwise the book is deeply, unflinchingly realistic. When you think about it through the context of fairy tales, though, it has that kind of wish fulfillment that the modern versions of these stories often do. But the bulk of the story is filled with the things that get cut out of the tales for today's world: the violence inflicted on Mireille is completely unvarnished and it is very difficult to read.

And that difficulty of reading is the only reason I'm not more enthusiastic about this novel. Roxane Gay is a phenomenal writer and the book is compelling and hard to put down. She draws realistic, captivating characters who have shades of gray and consistent internal logic, and the way she subverts Mireille's "fairy tale" narrative of her life with Michael by showing us its sometimes-ugly underbelly is brilliant. I could go on forever about how incredibly-written it is. But with the subject matter being what it is, it's hard to recommend this book widely. There's a great deal of sexual, physical and emotional abuse. If that's something you're able to handle, I'd definitely recommend it.

One year ago, I was reading: Prep (review to come)

Two years ago, I was reading: The Blind Assassin

Three years ago, I was reading: The Life of the World to Come

Four years ago, I was reading: Beloved

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