The mind works as the second prison in Roxane Gay’s An Untamed State, a story of a kidnapping that essentially never ends, but continues to loom large in the victim’s mind until her only response is to forget it, along with everything else.
Mireille Duval Jameson feels bound to bring her husband and son to visit her family home in Haiti, though she never enjoyed visiting as a child. A chaotic visit and a family outing to the beach is interrupted when Mireille is kidnapped right outside the house, surpassing her worst fears for their trip. As her father’s position of never paying ransom is tested, Mireille sits in a barren room, repeatedly visited and sexually assaulted by a man she thinks of as “the Commander” and his henchmen, who tell her that her family has forgotten about her. Unable to think of rescue, Mireille revisits her early memories for solace, but finds only pain in them.
Told almost completely from Mireille’s perspective, An Untamed State wastes no time delving into this ordeal, and Gay keeps the close-up on her throughout the novel, intensifying the narrative connection with her even as Mireille dissociates from the woman she was. Other sections from the perspectives of her father and her husband, Michael, offer context but no relief from the family’s nightmare; still, it is to Mireille’s view that Gay insistently returns, delving deeper into the way her abduction and treatment in captivity has irrevocably marked her. Repeating that she is “no one,” Mireille displaces herself from even mundane scenes of family togetherness, finding no relief in the prospect of resuming her normal routines. The fault lines that were already present in Mireille and Michael’s marriage—along lines of race, class, and gender—gape open terrifyingly with the experience she cannot relate to him.
A gripping psychological portrait of how trauma remakes the body to respond only to itself, An Untamed State refers to the broader currents of Haitian life the family is forced to confront when Mireille is kidnapped, but also the roil of sense memories and emotions created by her ordeal, which will travel with her unwanted. Fans of Gay’s work as an editor at The Rumpus and a columnist for Salon (among other places) will see a lush, sensual side to her writing here, turned to describe brutal facts of subjugation and punishment, the agony of waiting to be rescued and the protection of the brain.