Title: AN UNTAMED STATE
Author: Roxane Gay
Release Date: 2014
Publisher: Grove Press
My Rating: ★★☆☆☆(2/5)
Review on Goodreads
Okay. Very little about this book moved me and much of it frustrated me. (Maybe I’m being unduly harsh, but the graphic sexual violence really put me off.)
There were things I liked about this book and there were things I hated about this book. Overall, I thought the author did best when she was writing about the immigrant experience. The kidnapping felt superfluous to the book; I would have enjoyed this a hell of a lot more if it had just been an exploration of one woman’s relationship to her motherland and her marriage to a white husband. Or, hell, keep the kidnapping, but make it an exploration of classism rather than just rape and torture. Ugh, this book could have been 10x better. At least it was a quick read. Overall I would definitely not recommend it.
The immigrant experience: As the child of immigrants myself, as someone who has spent my life being shuttled between two cities, I identified with so much of what Mireille describes. Being foreign in America and the motherland, seeing two motherlands, feeling relief at being back in America but resenting non-natives who feel the same way…even going to the airport with huge, unwieldy suitcases that Americans can only stare at! During these scenes I basically felt like the book was speaking to me. I wish there had been more of this. I wish this had been the entire book.
The relationships between women: The relationship between Mireille and her sister is…well, it’s said to be a significant part of their lives. I honestly didn’t see too much of that going on; the author does a lot of telling and not showing. Still, this was nice to see. The other relationship that really hit home was the one between Mireille and her mother-in-law but I gotta tell you…I would have appreciated this relationship a lot more had the mother-in-law not been an unabashed racist. And then there’s Mireille’s complicated relationship with her mother and various other women.
The representation of PTSD and trauma: I’ve never had PTSD or experienced any sort of trauma, thankfully, but…the way the author described it here just felt right. The emptiness, the wanting to be so light that you can’t feel yourself, the out of body sensation, the divide of a before and an after, what the therapist said, about never really being okay again like before. …all of it rang true.
The writing: The writing is terrible. It’s…it’s just terrible. It’s very abrupt; my friend described it as “staccato” and that is very accurate. None of the writing flows together; the sentences are all separate entities. And then the dialogue. Oh, lord, the dialogue! Why is this dialogue so terrible? Is it meant to sound so overdramatic and unrealistic?
The gratuitous sexual violence: Okay, so…this was my biggest problem with this novel. It could partly be because I didn’t realize there would be sexual violence, but also…it was just so gratuitous. If I wanted to read torture porn I would go read torture porn. I do not need multiple detailed descriptions of rape scenes to know a character is being raped. These scenes are described in almost loving detail; it’s disturbing. I mean, I get that this is an artistic choice, that some would say the description is the only way to really get a sense of how broken Mireille becomes but…no. I understand that point of view, but I completely disagree with it. There are ways to write rape scenes that don’t sound like erotica. This was pure pulp.
Michael and his family: Like I mentioned above…Michael’s mother is blatantly racist. Not even racist in that subtle coded way white people sometimes have, but just like…unabashedly racist. Which would have been fine, if only Lorraine didn’t then become Mireille’s savior in the second half of the book. I don’t know what I’m supposed to have gotten from the development of their relationship, exactly. Is Lorraine still racist? Is she seeing Mireille as the “exceptional” POC different from the others? Is it just supposed to be part of her brash personality? I don’t know, and it was never addressed, neither by the narrative nor the characters. The whole thing had a very White Savior-y vibe too, like, Mireille escapes savage Haiti and runs to the safety of lily-white Nebraska. Like, why wouldn’t Mireille go to her sister for comfort? I don’t get it.
And Michael…at times he kinda reminded me of Danny from The Mindy Show, whose racism is very casual but still potent (to me, anyway). And then, at the end of the book, he is just…I don’t know if he’s dense or pretending to be dense. I don’t know. But he was frustrating to watch, utterly infuriating when he said that he “went through something too.” I don’t know if he didn’t realize his wife had been gang raped multiple times or if he was in denial or if he knew and just dealt with it wrong. Again, the narrative never really addressed just how much he was aware of, but…either way he doesn’t come out looking very good.
The ending: I won’t post spoilers, but you’ll know what I’m talking about, the second-to-last chapter. Basically my reaction was: really? It was just…so tacked on and unnecessary and utterly pointless and felt like it was thrown in there so that the last chapter could be written, and it really disturbs me that the last chapter was an extremely detailed account of the last time Mireille was raped. Plus it just leaves the reader – and Mireille – with zero closure. It was the literal worst way to end the book.