An Untamed State by Roxane Gay

Posted 30 April, 2015 by Trish in Reading Nook, Review / 18 Comments

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untamed state by roxane gayTitle: An Untamed State
Author: Roxane Gay
Published: 2014; Pages: 368
Genre: Fiction/Thriller
Rating: Visceral

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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?

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18 Responses to “An Untamed State by Roxane Gay”

  1. This is such a difficult book. Personally, I liked it very much (it was actually one of my favourite reads of last year). I didn’t know Roxane Gay is a rape victim herself. It makes it all the more admirable that she’s able to write about these things. This was a book that stayed with me for a very long time, and I think Roxane Gay did “get it right”. Like you, I find it really hard to recommend this book. It’s an important read, but so emotionally challenging that I almost don’t want to push anyone into it without all the warnings about what it will do.

  2. I haven’t even read her Bad Feminist … I admit to wondering if she had anything new to say because I read a lot of feminist writing and literature when I was in my 20s and 30s. I should really find the time because the message is still important and still relevant.

    • While feminism is feminism (to an extent), she does use a modern lens as the focus of her essays–lots of current media and events including news and entertainment/books. While I didn’t agree with all of her essays or sentiments, I think it’s worth a read–especially on audio! I’ll be very curious to hear what you think if you do get to it.

  3. Great review! I felt exactly the way you did about recommending this book. It was an honorable mention on my Best Books of 2014 list, but I recommended it to exactly 0 people in real life. I loved the first half and flew through it – at that point, I thought it would get my #1 book of 2014, but the second half dragged for me and I agree that part of that was the repetition….especially about feelings.

  4. I finally got around to ordering Bad Feminist and cannot way to read it. I am still on the fence on this one. I don’t know if I can take emotionally brutal these days. Courtney Summers’ All the Rage left me drained in that regard, and it wasn’t nearly as explicit as it sounds like this one is. Still, it is such an important topic. Shouldn’t that trump everything when we consider to whom we would recommend it?

  5. I think your conflicting feelings make a lot of sense. It’s hard to read violent stories. I find that sometimes they are hard to sit with at the time, but they stay in my head and influence the way I react to other books.

  6. You ask, ” Makes sense in my head, yes?” and I answer, YES, it makes sense. Great review. This is on my list but I want to read Bad Feminist first.

    • While she does touch upon some of the themes seen in An Untamed State, I don’t think you necessarily need to read Bad Feminist first. Bad Feminist is nonfiction–a collection of essays about a really wide range of things.

  7. There needs to be a word other than “enjoyment” for books like this. I haven’t read it yet, but I did have this experience with Lolita, and books like Room, A Child Called “It”, etc. And really there should be a word to indicate not liking books like this too, so you don’t feel guilty if you are than side of the spectrum.

  8. I need to reread Gay’s Bad Feminist – I listened it on audio and don’t remember a whole lot of what I listened to, other than an overall theme of the book and some of its essays. And then, I want to read this one too. I find that I can read about subjects like rape, murder, or real-life tragedies like 9/11, Katrina, etc, when it’s written by someone who has experienced some aspect of that event or was close to someone else who experienced it. Otherwise, I can find it exploitative. Still, either way, like Gay says, it is a thin line. It is very easy to crowd the book with details (or none at all) and take some of the authenticity out of it.

  9. An Untamed State was a hard read for me too. It was such a raw book in terms of the subject matter. Another challenging read was Citizen, a book that I recently finished. Fantastic review.

  10. Your rating really says it all! Sometimes a visceral book is a book we need to read to remind ourselves that our little suburban lives are very different from what others live.