Book Reviews: Roxane Gay’s “An Untamed State” More Than Just Torture Porn

Every once in a while, I read a book that reminds me how terrifying it is to be a woman.  Hostage films, novels, and even television shows have been on the rise for the past few years: Captain Phillips, the far superior A Hijacking, Amanda Lindhout’s memoir A House in the Sky, and countless others have been released or are in the works.  Also on the rise: Roxane Gay, whose work you’ve probably read on Salon and The Rumpus and, if you’re a literature fanatic like I am, in the Best American collections.

Gay is one of the most versatile writers I’ve ever read, able to churn out a gut-wrenching essay about racial politics followed by live-tweeting an episode of “The Bachelorette.”  I’ve been following her work for years and even had the chance to see her Skype in to a conversation on the cultural and literary impact of Fifty Shades of Grey at McNally Jackson. Thanks to social media and the unstoppable influence of the Internet, the idea of the literary celebrity has been reborn. Roxane Gay is certainly at the forefront of such writers, but her dedication to delivering well-crafted, nuanced work makes her one worth watching.

Gay’s new novel An Untamed State has been on the “most anticipated” list of nearly every bookworm site and literary journal imaginable.  The novel tells the story of Mireille, a Haitian-American lawyer who splits her time between Port-Au-Prince and Miami.  The morning she and her husband Michael are to take their infant son Christophe to the beach for the first time, Mireille is kidnapped by a gang of Haitians who hold her hostage at a ransom of a million dollars, the sum a seeming drop-in-the-bucket for her wealthy and influential Haitian father. The novel jumps in time, revealing Mireille’s somewhat reluctant history with Michael, a love that comes with the unlimited complications of mixing their two opposite worlds.  We see Mireille’s life in phases: “The Before” (as Mireille refers to her life pre-kidnapping), the during, and “The After.”

Reading this hostage tale is refreshing in that its author is more than familiar with the social and political complexities of Port-Au-Prince; Gay doesn’t have to waste time acknowledging her privilege or explaining how her perspective as an outsider might be “problematic.”  Instead of getting a  (highly embellished) tale, as we did in Captain Phillips,about an American who “heroically” sacrifices himself and saves the day against a band of evil pirates, through Gay’s perspective we are presented with a story so frighteningly real it doesn’t need to resort to damaging, salacious, and untrue stereotypes to keep readers interested.  This novel is certainly about the social class conflict in Haiti, but it’s more compelling when it reveals the consequences of the personal morals of its characters, including the ringleader of the kidnappers, The Commander.

I’m not revealing any spoilers here, as early on in the novel Mireille reveals she will be held captive for a total of thirteen days. I have to respect Gay’s affinity for pacing in her writing: this book draws readers in instantly by shoving, almost uncomfortably (which I’m sure was the goal), the harshness of the events of the novel into the opening line. Gay doesn’t comfort readers by starting with the joyful exposition of the happier times in “The Before.”

I found myself reading not necessarily because I was curious to learn more about Mireille’s early life, but because I was afraid of what would happen to her next if I didn’t. The book is cruel and relentless in its depictions of gang rape and brutal violence against women, but for me the most harrowing part of the novel was the harmful pride, impatience, and lack of sympathy from the supposed “good guys” –Michael, and Mireille’s father, Sebastien.

Women can easily relate to Mireille, because we can all recognize the hollow, shameful agony that comes when the men closest to us violate our trust or, even inadvertently, disappoint us in their misogynistic actions. What Gay gives readers instead is a small yet powerful assortment of female characters that are capable of supporting Mireille both during and after her ordeal.

There’s Mireille’s cantankerous mother-in-law, Lorraine, who calls out her son’s failure to properly support his wife when she returns home, when he says things like “I went through something too” and wonders why she doesn’t want to be close to him.  Mireille’s sister, Mona, also never asks her to explain what she went through in captivity; instead she allows Mireille to heal the way she should, slowly and full of anger.  Aiding in that healing is a female psychiatrist, who is the only character to tell Mireille the truth, saying, “You will get better but you will never be okay.”  But there’s also the darker character of Mireille’s mother, who represents a woman willing to accept the authority of her husband at any cost.

What readers will condemn in the male characters they will respect in the female ones.  Gay seems to be using the novel not so much to display the inability, or even willingness, of men to comprehend what it means to be a woman in captivity, but rather to show how well women are able to instinctively support each other in life’s greatest trials.  Those reviewers who are puzzled by how a feminist can write such intense and lengthy rape scenes, who allege that the book is another in the torture porn genre, have conveniently left off the plethora of female characters that consistently make feminist choices throughout the course of the novel.

An Untamed State is a far more feminist novel than it lets on, and Mireille is far from the “battered woman” archetype.  The novel touches on the pressures of captivity in literal as well as feminist forms.

The novel is, for me, about the different ways in which women are still held prisoner by society’s ever-growing expectations, and how so often we lose control over our own lives due to things outside of ourselves.  An Untamed State is not an easy, or even a pleasant, read, but it is a necessary one.


Firinn Asch
Firinn Asch is the pseudonym of a Southern-born, Manhattan-based writer. She is pursuing her Master's in Creative Writing and has a particular interest in cults, extreme religious sects, and translated literature. She also really appreciates a good Bloody Mary.
  • JulaiOhMy

    Putting this on my vacation reading list, thanks!

  • C_Mads_Go

    Definitely going to add to my reading list. Thanks!

  • botenana

    I had been waiting for a chance to be able to read this, and I am so glad I waited. Awesome review. As the others said, it’s on my reading list.