“Girl children are not safe in a world where there are men,” warns the much-abused narrator of Roxane Gay’s debut novel, a harrowing descent into the darkness of sexual violence. The publication of An Untamed State is sadly opportune: More than two hundred Nigerian girls are living the nightmare that Gay created for her Haitian-born heroine.
Her captivity lasts a decidedly unlucky 13 days, during which she undergoes a soul-crushing transformation to which too many women, here and abroad, can attest.
Haitians may be displeased with Gay, the Midwestern-reared child of Haitian immigrants, for her depiction of the fatherland. The chaotic airport, the ungodly heat, the “abominable roads,” the shocking squalor, the grotesque income inequality, the “mad indifference” of its citizens (and, worse, its police) to crime — a wonderful place to visit, if the only other choice is war-torn Syria.
But Gay’s job is to tell the truth, not drum up tourism. When her novel opens, in the summer of 2008, a series of kidnappings is plaguing the nation. This doesn’t dissuade Mireille Duval Jameson from spending her vacation at her wealthy parents’ estate in Port-au-Prince. Smart, beautiful Mireille enjoys an idyllic existence. A successful Miami-based attorney, she is happily married to a white American, a good-natured engineer from Nebraska, with whom she conceived a healthy baby boy.
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All of which, of course, is as fragile as a balloon. And one morning it is jabbed with a needle by a gang of machine-gun-wielding thugs who intercept the three on their way to the beach. Only Mireille is taken; unfortunately, her husband Michael lacks the particular set of skills that would help him find her quickly.
Mireille’s father, on the other hand, can get her back at once, if he pays an exorbitant ransom. But this self-made millionaire is stubborn; he refuses to negotiate. After two days, Mireille’s captors decide to teach the old man — and his equally defiant daughter — a lesson neither will ever forget.
Thus begins a seemingly unrelenting cycle of rape and torture, designed to break Mireille. I applaud Gay’s courage: she writes candidly, vividly and necessarily about an emotionally exhausting subject that might turn off faint-hearted readers. Thankfully she provides respite from the horror, in the form of the pleasant memories that Mireille clings to, to keep from losing her mind.
Her chief tormenter is the gang’s leader, a young man who styles himself pompously as “the Commander.” Gay captures the utter blandness of such streetcorner demagogues. At one point he handcuffs Mireille naked to a bed and spouts untutored Marxism: “He left me there, bared to him as he talked, mostly incoherent, half-formed political ideas, angry barbs about wealth and women, the ramblings of a man without a real ideology.”
Commanders are everywhere; recently, we saw one in a video for the Boko Haram, threatening to sell the Nigerian girls into slavery. Like Mireille’s tormentor, they resent anything they cannot understand or control. Gay acknowledges the role a despairing society has in growing these monsters; the poverty, the neglect, etc. But to her credit, not for one instance does she excuse their actions.
Midway through the novel, Mireille is returned to her family, a bruised and bleeding wreck. She examines her wounds in a mirror: “I studied the attentions of unkind men.” But the real damage is deeper, invisible.
In the second half of An Untamed State, Gay shines. This is an unforgettable look at a rape survivor struggling (and largely failing) to cope with the aftermath of her trauma. Michael tries to help, but everything he does is wrong. Mireille’s relationship with the opposite sex is forever changed: “For the rest of my life, I would always calculate the worst possibilities of being alone with any man but my husband.” But she does find an unlikely friend — her racist mother-in-law, of all people — to guide her away from the abyss.
As searing as Gay’s novel is, you will find it difficult to resist her flawless pacing. Her sharp, clear prose moves the plot along effortlessly. Ideas are conveyed without resorting to polemics. If she has an agenda, feminist or otherwise, it is subordinate to story. The ending is realistic; for Mireille there was “before,” as she says, which was stolen from her; she can never be that woman again. Now there is the enduring challenge of accepting “after.”
Ariel Gonzalez teaches English at Miami Dade College.