An Untamed State is a study in being trapped.
Author Roxane Gay busts her debut open with a scene that would be a climax in any other novel: Mirielle Duval Jameson is kidnapped by armed men in darkened SUVs as her husband and screaming child watch, helpless, just outside the walls of her wealthy father's Haitian home. The men, lusting for ransom and flesh and power, hold Mirielle for 13 days while the men in her life battle to decide if the ransom should be paid and, if so, how.
In those 13 days, Mirielle's family is stretched and torn — as is her body, which is violated by the expected, as well as by guns, blades and flames. She decides she must forget her husband and child in order to survive; she must become a new person or she will die. Never mind the fact that she is already dying and wishes her captors would finish the job. But her brain does not give in so easily. During her captivity, it surfaces the memories she struggles to repress. After, it betrays her as she fights to reconnect with her family, to forget her trauma, to reconstruct herself.
Much of An Untamed State deals with the extreme income inequality that causes the rich to enclose themselves behind the gates and high walls that breed resentment among the poor, driving them to kidnap. Townspeople — witnesses to these crimes — remain quiet for fear of retribution.
Then there's the question of escape. How can Mirielle escape the physical, emotional and psychological torture wrested on her by her captors and those who hesitated to save her? To whom can she turn for support and, honestly, resurrection? It is Gay's handling of these questions that is most compelling — and in a different way than the stomach-turning torture scenes — and a reminder of the fact that Gay herself was gang-raped as a teenager, an experience that certainly informed her writing of Mirielle's aftermath.
The reader knows from the first paragraph that Mirielle has been tortured, and also that she's survived. It's a strange thing to know from the start. You hope the author will ease you into the horror, but no, she confronts you with it head-on and forces you to process details so horrible you wonder if she really does make it out alive. The non-linear plot — flashing back to stories about her parents, her husband, their courtship — provides respite from the torture but also serves as a frequent reminder: This is a woman with a lot to lose.
For me, the moment her captors set Mirielle free was fraught with doubt, just as she was. Were they right behind her as she ran barefoot through the streets, waiting to recapture and finish her?
Those fears continue to chase her, preventing her healing, causing her to behave in rash and irrational ways. She attempts to take steps toward recovery, slowly enough that even her loving husband loses patience, and only one unexpected person seems up to caring for her.
In a scene deep into the book, Mirielle and this companion bake together, loaves of bread, releasing frustration through kneading and ignoring the growing mess gathering at their feet. I decided to recreate that in my own way with homemade pizza dough, a recipe that requires several solid minutes of working the dough by hand followed by hours of waiting and more hours of preparation. This is not a dough that can, or should, be rushed. And that's a good thing.