An Untamed State, by Roxane Gay

An Untamed StateThis book. Oof.

I would not have picked this book up probably ever except that a couple of people on my bookternet were like, this book is amazing and gut-wrenching and did I say amazing already? And I’m generally trusting of those couple of people, so I picked up an advance copy and went to it.

And maybe if you don’t go into it expecting amazing and gut-wrenching, that’s what you’ll get, but that is not what I got at all. Blast.

The main story is fascinating. It kicks off with a woman in Haiti being kidnapped from in front of her husband and young son, which is bad news. Then it turns out that the woman’s father is some super big shot in Haiti and has made public proclamations that he won’t pay ransoms for employees or friends or family members in order to avoid paying all the ransoms ever, and he’s committed to said proclamations even in the face of his daughter actually being actually kidnapped by actual kidnappers. Which, sure, he’s got reasons, but dude. So now the daughter, Mireille, is being held captive by a bunch of dudes and her dad’s not paying and you know from the beginning that she’s stuck there for something like 13 days and it’s really just a waiting game to see when things are going to go horribly wrong, which they do. I learned more than I wanted to about wealth and class politics in Haiti from this awful story, and what’s worse is that I know there’s more to know.

So that’s all… great, for certain values of great, but the book is written in this jumbled-up fashion where the narrative cuts back and forth between Mireille in captivity and Mireille meeting her husband, Michael, and eventually marrying him, and I just couldn’t get behind the latter story. Mireille and Michael are both kind of horrible people for different reasons that just don’t mesh into one happy horrible household, and I could not for the life of me figure out how they survived marriage to each other nor could I bring myself to care about their relationship. I just didn’t get it, and I found myself kind of looking forward to getting back to the whole kidnapping thing, which makes me a horrible person, I think.

And then, after she finally gets out (which you know she does from the beginning this is not a spoiler), the book turns into the second half of Room (that might be a spoiler, oh well) where Mireille is trying to integrate herself back into her Before Life and failing super miserably. But where that second half is the part of Room that I liked the best, here I was just trying to power through it and finish the book and move on to something less depressing and boring and awful all around. I disliked Sad-Sack Mireille intensely and Michael wasn’t much better (although his parents are the best), and I was really only turning the pages to see if maybe I would start to care before the book finally ended.

Maybe that’s the point? Maybe I’m supposed to see that bad things happen can happen to bad people and I can still not feel like they deserved the bad things? Maybe I’m supposed to feel one iota of the torture that Mireille went through by having to read about it? If that’s the point, then it’s well done, but I certainly didn’t like it. Or find it amazing. Or even gut-wrenching — most of the bad stuff happens off-page, and the stuff that does happen on-page is told from Mireille’s disaffected point of view, providing a buffer.

But for all that I just didn’t like or connect with this book, I really enjoyed Roxane Gay’s writing and am looking forward to her upcoming book of essays, called Bad Feminist, in hopes that her nonfiction and humor make me happier than this book did.

Recommendation: I’m pretty sure you have to be in the right mood for this one, but I have no idea what that mood is. I will take suggestions in the comments!

Rating: 6/10

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