Okay, that’s it. I quit. I am never reading another Roxane Gay book again. While I appreciated Hunger, every other book of hers has felt unfinished (Ayiti) or been a rambling, diary-like incoherent mess (Bad Feminist). Since I stopped reading An Untamed State at 41%, this is going to be a brief review. Here is the synopsis from Goodreads:
Mireille Duval Jameson is living a fairy tale. The strong-willed youngest daughter of one of Haiti’s richest sons, she has an adoring husband, a precocious infant son, by all appearances a perfect life. The fairy tale ends one day when Mireille is kidnapped in broad daylight by a gang of heavily armed men, in front of her father’s Port au Prince estate. Held captive by a man who calls himself The Commander, Mireille waits for her father to pay her ransom. As it becomes clear her father intends to resist the kidnappers, Mireille must endure the torments of a man who resents everything she represents.
Eventually, Roxane Gay publicly discussed on her own gang rape when she was a young teen. She is open and frank about it in Hunger. Similarly, Mireille in An Untamed State is kidnapped and gang raped over and over and over. The rape and sexual assault scenes are graphic, involving sadistic methods designed to break Mireille down and “teach her a lesson” for being so mouthy while she’s held hostage.
I read to 41% because I kept thinking that I shouldn’t turn away from painful things. The world is full of horrors I can’t imagine, and perhaps reading about them will make me more understanding, I guess? WRONG. What led me to immediately quit reading was a scene involving breast milk. All I could think was Gay wanted to see her readers squirm, because she certainly gives no insight into the human condition.
The truly gross part of An Untamed State is that it shifts from the present (Mireille held hostage and raped constantly) to the past when she met her future husband. Those scenes are just as uncomfortable. Mireille and Michael fight all the time, but also have hot, wild sex constantly, too. Though Michael seems like the perfect father and husband in the present, in the past he low-key stalks Mireille. Whenever she gets angry, she literally runs away and then comes back to tell Michael, “I’m difficult to love.” Roxane Gay does a lot of telling in her character development; nothing indicates why Mireille would be unlovable. No one seemed like a real person — not Mireille or Michael, not her captors nor her father, not even her baby, who doesn’t cry when the kidnappers bust out the window in the car and extract his mother.
I know that a theme of the novel is privilege. Mireille’s family is wealthy on an island of obscene poverty. The kidnappers point this out to their hostage, who has vehemently denied that Haiti is just about poverty. When she and her future-husband, Michael, visit Haiti, they stay in a gated community or in resorts. When he notes the extreme suffering of regular Haitians, Mireille blows up at him for not loving Haiti, which she feels means he can’t love her. I don’t think Mireille understands anything about the home of her parents.
I felt there was something Gay was doing with sex and rape that mirrored what she tried to say about poverty and suffering in Haiti. I’m sitting in my safe apartment, reading the violence repeatedly enacted upon a woman far away from me. Likewise, Mireille’s family sit in their mansion in Port-au-Prince, but see the dying, suffering masses constantly — from the safety of their home, which is removed from the misery via a gate. However, I see no purpose to this parallel other than to make me feel guilty. Gay’s manipulative use of pathos is so prominent it reeks.
One fact I was constantly aware of as I read An Untamed State: I would recommend this book to literally no one. Whether you believe in content/trigger warnings or not, I would be irresponsible to not note the sheer amount of graphic sexual violence. On top of that, the characterization is poorly done. Please keep in mind that I stopped at 41%, so my review is not of the complete novel. However, I wash my hands of this author.