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Roxane Gay’s debut novel ‘An Untamed State’ rewards those willing to endure it

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Tod Goldberg

Four stars

An Untamed State By Roxane Gay, $16.

Roxane Gay, in the first lines of her startling debut novel An Untamed State, dives headlong into the wreck: “Once upon a time, in a far-off land, I was kidnapped by a gang of fearless yet terrified young men with so much impossible hope beating inside their bodies it burned their very skin and strengthened their will right through their bones.”

What unfolds over the next 370 pages is a horrifying explication of the mind and body, as the kidnapped narrator, Mireille, daughter of a prominent Haitian family now married to an American and back in Port-au-Prince on vacation, is brutalized by her captors over the course of 13 harrowing days while her family dithers over a ransom demand. She is forced to make choices, both mental and physical, that are unimaginable: “I began to forget everything I had ever known and anyone I had ever loved. I became no one. I became a woman who wanted to live. That was my fight.”

Watching Mireille disappear, bone by broken bone, synapse by shot synapse, is deeply unsettling. That’s not to say Gay makes mistakes here; she doesn’t. Rather, the result is that An Untamed State is a novel you can’t hope to read straight through, even though we know from page one that Mireille survives her ordeal. That’s because the definition of survival begins to take on highly different forms, both for the reader and the characters who swirl around Mireille, most directly her husband Michael. Left to deal with the demands of the kidnappers alongside Mireille’s intractable father—a wealthy builder who refuses the kidnappers’ initial demand of a million dollars, as “he wasn’t going to lose everything he had worked for to thieving losers”—Michael is also a stranger in the increasingly strange land of Haiti.

Rules of American society don’t apply in Haiti, and the division between Western ideals of prosperity and safety and the brutality of daily life in Haiti become increasingly fraught. In America no one gets away with a ransom. But in Haiti it’s a business, and Gay asks the primal questions: What is the price you would pay to get your wife or your daughter back? What is the value of love? What does strength mean? There are no easy answers to be found in An Untamed State, and Gay, in elegant, fierce, poetic prose that evokes early-career Margaret Atwood, forces her characters to reach across all borders to find some final sense of reason. It’s a hard-won discovery, surely, but one absolutely worth the journey. This is a novel not easily forgotten.

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