Tuesday, 10 March 2015

Book Review: An Untamed State by Roxane Gay

Book: An Untamed State

Author: Roxane Gay

Pages: 370

I read it on: My Kindle

I read it in: Over 3 days (needed to take breaks.. not for the faint hearted)

Trigger Warning: For explicit, heavy sexual violence, rape, torture, PTSD and depression.

Plot Summary: Mireille Duval Jameson is living a fairy tale. The strong-willed youngest daughter of one of Haiti’s richest sons, she has an adoring husband, a precocious infant son, by all appearances a perfect life. The fairy tale ends one day when Mireille is kidnapped in broad daylight by a gang of heavily armed men, in front of her father’s Port au Prince estate. Held captive by a man who calls himself The Commander, Mireille waits for her father to pay her ransom. As it becomes clear her father intends to resist the kidnappers, Mireille must endure the torments of a man who resents everything she represents.

An Untamed State is a novel of privilege in the face of crushing poverty, and of the lawless anger that corrupt governments produce. It is the story of a willful woman attempting to find her way back to the person she once was, and of how redemption is found in the most unexpected of places. 

What I Liked: Quick list:
  • The premise of the book is very interesting. It focuses on the common practice/ crime involving kidnapping members of upper crust families for ransom, which is fairly common in several Third World countries. In this case, the book is set in Haiti and the daughter of a wealthy America-returned construction magnate is kidnapped and held for ransom. This book provides a look into the inequity of wealth, which is typical of several Third World/ developing nations and Haiti is no different. 
  • The author does a good job of writing about a difficult subject- rape and sexual assault. The scenes are brutal and no-holds-barred, which makes them very difficult to read. This book is not for the faint-hearted. Please refer to the trigger warning note above before deciding to pick up this book. 
  • Miri's coping mechanism and healing process after her release was also well done. I liked that Miri turned to the one person in her life that she had a difficult relationship with in order to heal. 

What I Didn't Like:  Quick list:
  • Miri was difficult to connect with as a character. Obviously, one felt awful and terrible at what she had to endure but she was not particularly likeable, thereby leading to a somewhat distancing of the reader (me) from her. The author spent too much time in the book building Miri up as some kind of a "wilfull" woman, which to me read like a parody of sorts. There was a serious lack of soul in the crafting of Miri's character, which made it difficult to connect with her. She came across as stubborn rather than willful or strong, bratty, somewhat naive, willful-for-the-sake-of-being-willful and hollow. 
  • There were a lot of references in the book about the contrast between the lives of the haves and have nots in Haiti. And just that. References. There was no meaningful showcasing of what it is like to be poor and live in a slum in Haiti, apart from one paragraph about the life of one of Miri's kidnappers! The references to Haiti's income disparity come from Miri's husband, whose own perspective is shaped by his very Mid-West-corn-fed-white-American-man's simplistic and sometimes ignorant worldview. He is aghast at the beggars and keeps asking Miri how she can bear to be in Haiti when there is so much poverty here! There is no exploration of this poverty beyond these occasional references by Miri's husband. 
  • Miri's father's character was ridiculously mean and difficult to wrap one's head around! What father would let his youngest child- a daughter at that- stay for 13 days with a bunch of violent men and refuse to pay the ransom, which was not at all a problem for him to pay in the first place?! Initially, the man tries to hide behind the whole 'it's the principle of the thing' approach, where he did not want to negotiate with the kidnappers and then we find out that the dude is just a selfish, greedy jerk who does not care what his daughter had to endure at the hands of these men.
  • The last quarter of the book was not nearly as gripping or interesting in any way. While Miri's journey to recovery was important to be shown, it need not have been dragged out the way it was! Miri's "willfulness" was on in full blast as she refused to see a doctor or a therapist for months after her return! Everyone understands how traumatic it must have been for her, but why would you not want to see a doctor?! Like I said, her character makes no sense. 
Rating: 2.5/5
This is a well-written book about a painful and difficult subject. Pick it up only if you have the stomach for reading brutal, hardcore descriptions of sexual assault. 


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