Most often the sign of a good book is one you know you’ll read again. When you turn that first page and you realize you’re hooked and you can’t wait to reread it. But sometimes, there’s those really strong books, brilliant really, and you’re grateful to have somehow stumbled on them, but you know you’ll never read them again. Ever. Why? Because they haunt you. Because they tell you a story you don’t want to hear. Because you never want to live in the situation the character was in. Because the story makes you realize how comfortable you live. Because you feel such guilt reading about these horrific atrocities from your cozy bed, slowly sipping a coffee you made at home with your clean water from your apartment faucet, when your fridge is full (or it could be if you shopped properly). Because you’re so privileged and the story is so horrible you never realized the world could be that bad.
Roxane Gay‘s An Untamed State tells the story of a Haitian American woman who is kidnapped in Haiti and held for ransom. Mirielle Duval Jameson is married and has an eight month old son. Her father grew up in a shack with his parents and twelve siblings. He moved to the United States and became successful, always working for men who held his being Haitian against him. So he moved back to Haiti, and became the most successful developer there. His family always worried about being kidnapped: in fact, they joked about it. And when it happens, the most successful man in Haiti, her father, refuses to pay the kidnappers and negotiates for less. He could afford it but refuses to give in to the thieves (yes, he considers them thieves before kidnappers). Mirielle Duval Jameson is held by her kidnappers for almost two weeks.
Those almost two weeks, those are the weeks I never want to read about again. The book wouldn’t be right if she didn’t force us to read what happened to Mirielle. The strength of Gay is not just the story she tells, but how she tells it. She writes about extreme violence without sensationalizing it.
Gay cuts the book up: into the before and the after. The before is before Mirielle was kidnapped, and she slices the before into the after. She gives the reader a break, something that Mirielle never gets. And Gay develops Mirielle’s character. She’s a strong woman, a mother, a wife, a daughter. She’s a lawyer, driven, an American, a Haitian. She is privileged. And she is kidnapped.
Mirielle fights. She fights because that is who she is. She cannot keep quiet. She cannot give in. But the worst thing about all this, in my mind, is what happens in my mind. Initially, I thought, yeah, fight them, don’t give in. But I, as a reader, started to get upset. I thought, stop fighting Mirielle, you’re only making things worse. I had so much empathy for Mirielle, and I wanted her to be alright so I continued to plead with her to stop talking, stop fighting. And then I was disgusted with myself. It seemed to me that I was somehow trying to blame her for what the men were doing to her. And intellectually, I know that’s not right, but somehow, maybe I wanted to imagine she had some power and that she was squandering it away by trying to prove a point. Which is totally wrong, I realize that, but I’m being honest about all the emotions I experienced while reading this book.
An Untamed State is an easy book to read. The story flows: it moves at a rapid pace, and Gay splices Mirielle’s past into the kidnapping. The love story between Mirielle and her husband is incredibly sweet while being painfully honest. Mirielle, as she says over and over, “is not an easy woman to love.” I definitely will not ever read An Untamed State again. But the story will never leave me, the characters will never disappear from my memory. My feelings while reading the book will never dissipate. I will never regret reading it but I cannot read it again. The book is that strong. Gay told a hard story, and she told it well, and I will definitely continue to read everything she writes.