In Short: Mireille is kidnapped and brutally held captive for a ransom while visiting her homeland of Haiti.
Why I Read: Curiosity. I knew it wasn’t going to be an easy read, but it has received praise amongst bloggers. I also purchased this as a daily ebook deal, so it was burning a hole in my virtual shelf.
Thoughts in General: It would be really easy to make this post about the graphic nature of An Untamed State. About the violent rape scenes, the physical abuse, the mental trauma. An Untamed State is not an easy read–in fact throughout most of the book it is a fairly uncomfortable read–the kind where you want to look away from the horror, but you know you mustn’t. It is about a woman who endures the unimaginable and barely survives; there is nothing pretty or tidy about this book. Nothing.
As I read the book, I was reminded of one of the essays in Gay’s Bad Feminist, “The Careless Language of Sexual Violence.” You can read the entire article on The Rumpus, but near the end she talks about her penchant for writing about sexual violence. The article in full is worth reading, but this comment really stuck with me while I was reading An Untamed State: “As I write any of these stories, I wonder if I am being gratuitous. I want to get it right. How do you get this sort of thing right? How do you write violence authentically without making it exploitative? … While I have these concerns, I also feel committed to telling the truth, to saying these violences happen even if bearing such witness contributes to a spectacle of sexual violence.” This became my takeaway of this heartwrenching and gutwrenching book.
The narrative is told mostly from Mireille’s point of view–both as she is in the moment and as she reflects upon her time before the kidnapping–how life’s circumstances shaped who she had become, who she fell in love with and married, and how she must survive the horrors that she experiences at the mercy of a gang of Haitian thugs. It would be easy to shy away from this type of narrative, but Gay is giving a voice to the victims of rape (as Gay herself is a victim of gang rape). She brutally illustrates just how this has damaged and forever changed Mireille. An Untamed State isn’t so much about the physical effects but the emotional and mental effects.
The prose is sparse and quick; the chapters were short and alternated between present time and past time–this made it easy to read through the book at a fast pace. It’s impossible to not want to know how things end for Mireille, no matter how difficult they might be. I did not care for the repetition in the book and every time I read a repeated phrase I was immediately pulled out of the narrative. I wanted something new or a deeper exploration–though at times Gay did satisfy. The characters are difficult to love (even Mireille tells this of herself), but I adored the relationship between Mireille and her mother-in-law Jolene.
The paragraph that I’m trying to avoid. Did I love the book? No. Did I like it? I’m not sure. It’s almost the same conflicting feeling that I feel about Lolita–how do you enjoy reading a book about a deranged pedophile? Can we look past the subject to see the art? And while I cannot compare Gay’s prose to Nabokov’s, the beauty in this book comes from the honesty in which she explores the raw intensity of Mireille’s emotions. This is what makes the book worth reading. I’m glad to have read it but I won’t call it a favorite nor the best book. Makes sense in my head, yes?
Bottom Line: After I finish a book I often wonder who I would recommend it to. Sometimes I finish a book and have no idea–this is one of those cases. Not to say that I wouldn’t recommend it, but brace yourself for the grip this book will place on you. Read this book if you want to be challenged and to push the boundaries of your emotions.
What is one of the most emotionally challenging books you’ve read?