Wednesday, November 19, 2014

An Untamed State, by Roxane Gay

I'm struggling. It's usually so easy for me to recommend books I love to friends and family. Generally there's a nice plot hook to reel them in, or it's a specific genre they love or something. But here I am with An Untamed State, feeling strongly that everyone should read it, but running up against a basic plot summary: Woman is kidnapped while visiting her parents in Haiti. She's held prisoner and raped repeatedly for thirteen days.

Even Chef blanched when I told him to read it. "That sounds so painful," he said.

He's not wrong. I read a good chunk of this book with tears streaming down my cheeks. It's not exactly a fun read. But.

But but but but.

There's so much to unpack in this novel. My plot summarizing skills--limited to begin with--don't make a dent. Yes, it's about a kidnapping and rape. Rape isn't easy to read about, or at least it shouldn't be. I can't remember it ever being handled precisely like this. I've been trying to think of how I've read it in the past, and surprisingly I had trouble coming up with specific examples. The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, I suppose. I hated that book. But I read it so long ago I can't remember many specifics, except the rapes didn't seem to be all that well done, and there were an awful lot of shopping lists. Otherwise it seems rape is used as a tool to describe men--we see how awful this character is because he's a rapist. Or this man is spurred into action because someone he cares about is raped (I may be thinking of movies here more than books, honestly). But I don't remember many cases where the focus stays with the woman (or man) who is raped.

It's oddly refreshing.

Mireille Duval Jameson is visiting her parents in Haiti with her husband Michael and son Christophe when she is kidnapped for ransom. Her father is rich, which is an inadequate word to describe the economic divides in play in Haiti. Imagine the most gut-wrenching poverty you can, and then imagine the most extravagant wealth. Then stick them right next to each other. This juxtaposition is disturbing in real life, and is something Mireille can never quite forget. Roxane Gay, daughter of Haitian immigrants herself, clearly struggles with the reality of such luxury existing next door to this kind of poverty. It's a--pardon the pun--richer story for it. Even while the kidnappers are committing these brutal acts, we're never quite allowed to forget their humanity. Gay manages to give both the reader and Mireille herself flashes of who these men are that make you almost pity them. But she does it in a way that never ever excuses the horrible things they're doing, if that makes sense. At one point, the leader of the kidnappers, a man called the Commander, tells Mireille a story about his father, who had been a chauffeur for a wealthy family. He would sometimes drive his children around in his employer's Mercedes.
They would roll slowly past the presidential palace and head high into the hills where the wealthy lived. His father often said, "Look how these people live. Never forget what they choose to deny you."
I rolled my eyes. "My father grew up in a shack with a dirt floor, never had a moment to himself, shared that tiny place with his parents and twelve siblings. You are not the only man to grow up wanting or hungry or angry. My father earned everything he has."
And let's talk about Mireille. I love this character. She's smart, she's tough--even as she's broken down by her kidnappers, even as her father refuses to pay her ransom, she still fights back, but in a totally human, believable way. One thing I brought up to Chef when I was trying to convince him to read this was that it was refreshing to read a book in which a brutalized woman doesn't recover by, like, becoming an assassin. This is not a vengeance book. It's not really a spoiler to say that Mireille does get away from her captors (she says as much on the first page). The structure of the book is really interesting; Mireille tells most of the story, sometimes from a distance after the fact, as a sort of fairy tale, sometimes with an immediacy in the moment. There are also many flashbacks showing her relationship with her husband Michael. Honestly, this is one of the most romantic books I've read in a long time. Michael and Mireille, again, are so damn human. They both screw up, badly (as does every other character in the book), but they love each other so much and I just had so many feelings reading about them, oh man. Michael is an American and it's painful to witness his helplessness as his wife is held for ransom. It's painful to watch him try to deal with the very changed woman who returns to him. It's painful to watch him fuck up again and again.

But I think ultimately this is a hopeful book. It's not an uplifting book, it doesn't all work out. Shit goes down, some things-people-relationships can't be put back together the same once they've been broken. It's just one hard truth in a book full of hard truths. But we also see things get better. People, relationships that have fallen apart can pull back together, if in new ways. Mireille's refrain throughout the book is that she hasn't been broken. Sometimes she forgets that, but we all see that it's true.

There's so much more I could write about--her fractured relationship with her parents. Her relationship with her in-laws, particularly Michael's mother Lorraine. Mireille and her sister. Michael and his parents. Motherhood and poverty and patriarchy and there's just so damn much, and so well done. No wonder my awful summary wasn't enticing. This isn't a book you can sum up. This is a book that embraces complexity. (I'll just say that from now on, I'm sure that'll work. Ugh.)

But I must have said something right because the next morning there was a new bookmark in the book, forty pages in.