An Untamed State by Roxane Gay, book review

A fairy-tale feminist riff on kidnap and redemption

There are so many things crammed into An Untamed State it is in danger of bursting at the seams. There is the cruel intersection between reality and fantasy, the internecine clashing within families, the culture shock between characters in an ethnically mixed relationship, the endemic brutalisation of women by men, and the capacity (or otherwise) of human beings to change.

All of this is packed into what is (initially, at least) an eventful kidnap scenario, packaged by its publisher as a literary novel, with the accoutrements of crime fiction – even though Roxane Gay has bigger fish to fry.

Any novel that begins, "Once upon a time in a far-off land", suggests that we are to be seduced by a fairy-tale narrative, but the unsanitised version of the Brothers Grimm is the template here, rather than the more familiar, softened versions.

The novel's narrator, Mireille Duval Jameson, is the American-born daughter of a Haitian captain of industry. Leaving the gates of her family's mansion in Port-au-Prince, she finds herself kidnapped by armed men who pull her violently away from her husband and baby.

The subsequent treatment of Jameson by her captors is presented in an utterly unsparing fashion, channelling the same kind of kidnap-and-torture scenario explored by such writers as Jussi Adler-Olsen and Hans Koppel – but Gay is closer to the humanity of the former than the pitilessness of the latter.

Another source of torment for Jameson is the behaviour of her wealthy father, who is given an ultimatum: $1m within two days, or a heavy price will be paid. And she is grimly aware that, for specious reasons, her father will not pay.

Gay is a prolific journalist and the author of Bad Feminist. There is one kind of feminist agenda here: after her release, it's up to the violated Jameson to piece together her shattered life, and in this endeavour, she cannot count on help from any man, certainly not her ruthless father.

Amid the graphic scenes of rape and violence, there is a multifaceted vision of the heroine's consciousness – and the book is a cogent personal journal as much as a critique of male violence against women. Gay demonstrates rigour in keeping the lengthy timespan of her novel in focus, but the ace in the hole is her heroine: the reader becomes deeply concerned that she will do the right thing – for herself, that is; we're not worried about those who let her down. And such is Gay's persuasiveness, we're perfectly happy with that.

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