An Untamed State by Roxane Gay

An Untamed State by Roxane GayAn Untamed State by Roxane Gay should be issued with a warning. It is a deeply troubling and powerfully written novel. It recounts the tale of Miri’s kidnapping and captivity while she is visiting her parents in Haiti with her husband and son, and her attempt to return to a normal American life afterwards. It is utterly heartbreaking, not least because much of it is written in the first person and feels like a memoir, not a novel.

I had troubles sticking with An Untamed State, but I’m glad I did. At about page 100 the violence gets so brutal that I didn’t think I could go on. Shannon at River City Reading encouraged me to keep going. The second half of the novel deals with Miri’s attempt to return to her pre-kidnapping life. To me, this was the most important part of the novel because of how it portrayed PTSD. Quite naturally, Miri is wounded in ways that are not readily apparent to the eye. Her constant state of fear is palpable.

Gay’s writing throughout the novel is unflinching. I know that is often used as a cliche, but it is absolutely true in this case. The horrors she portrays are not something you want to read about, but are things that we need to acknowledge happen. This book will take you out of the safe middle class life you are living and place you in the shoes of someone else. I was seriously concerned that I would have problems sleeping at night after reading An Untamed State.

Who would like this book? I hesitate to recommend An Untamed State to anyone, in spite of the fact that it is brilliantly executed. The subject matter is so troubling and vividly depicted that it leaps off the page. For anyone who has endured personal violence or rape, it may well be too much to handle. That being said, I also believe it is an important book, especially in the way it deals with PTSD. Along similar lines, just today on Pickle Me This I came across her review of One Hour in Paris by Karyn Freedman. It looks at sexual violence and the lasting psychological damage in inflicts by drawing on her own rape and moving to a wider frame by looking at it in the worldwide context. Both books remind us that just because a subject is difficult, doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be explored.

An Untamed State at time also reminded me of News of a Kidnapping by Gabriel Garcia Marquez, which explores a series of kidnappings at the hands of the Medellin Drug Cartel in Columbia. I read this book a good fifteen years ago, but from what I remember, there was much less violence.

I received a copy of the book from the publisher via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

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23 Comments

  1. I’m so glad you were able to get to the second part – I know I had to take a bit to gather myself while reading the beginning, too. It feels a little odd to call a book like this a “favorite” because it definitely wasn’t a pleasurable reading experience, but it was definitely the most I’ve been moved by a book all year. Great job with your review!

  2. Sometimes the most powerful books can be the hardest to read. They usually deal with subject matters that are tough to read about, but are important for that very reason. We, in our comfortable homes need to be more aware of the horrible things that go on in the world. Even if they don’t touch us personally, they effect the world we live in. Good review!

  3. I probably wouldn’t be able to handle the violence of this book, but I completely understand loving something that was difficult to get through. I feel the same way about the movie Dancer in the Dark. That movie was capable of taking me to the most intense of places, I’ll probably never watch it again as I don’t think I could take it, but it will always remain a favourite. -Tania

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