AN UNTAMED STATE is Roxane Gay's first novel, but her online presence precedes her: She's the essays editor at the Rumpus; she tweets, often and grumpily, about The Bachelorette and other things; she writes, often and brilliantly, about feminism and race and pop culture, for places like the New York Times and Salon. An Untamed State is one of the most-anticipated debut novels of the year, in part because readers have had years to get to know and trust Gay's voice, perspective, and intellect.
That trust is abundantly repaid with the excellent An Untamed State. It's about a Haitian American woman—Mireille, or Miri for short. While visiting her family in Haiti, Miri is kidnapped; her father, in a misplaced show of strength, refuses to pay her ransom, and she's held captive for 13 nightmarish days.
When Miri is allowed to speak to her American husband on the phone, he reveals how deeply he misunderstands the situation: "If they lay one hand on you, I swear," he says. Miri thinks: "I wanted to say, what do you think is going on?" By this point, she's been raped, beaten, burned with cigarettes.
Gay doesn't avert her eyes—or ours—from the details of Miri's captivity, but she does break up the narrative with flashbacks to Miri's fairytale relationship with her husband, Michael. Michael is an unambiguously good man, supportive and caring; but their relationship suffers when Miri returns from captivity deeply traumatized, terrified of being too close to men, any men, even her husband. (Gay's writing here on the post-traumatic effects of sexual assault is brilliant, eye opening, and necessary.)
An Untamed State isn't merely a catalog of the horrors suffered by Miri at the hands of her kidnappers—it is also, more subtly, a critique of the mental attitudes of privilege, and of the system of global inequality that allows Miri's family to live in luxury behind high gates while Port-au-Prince teems with unimaginable poverty. It's not quite fair to say that Gay is sympathetic to Miri's attackers—she isn't—but she contextualizes their actions in a way that challenges readers to determine where their own sympathies lie.
Gay's prose is direct and muscular, unflinchingly confronting the reality she's created. There are a few missteps; when a character "storms" out of a room, it's a lapse into imprecision that catches the reader up short. But rare moments hardly detract from the novel's power. To call it "hard to put down" is an understatement; I lost sleep over it, and won't forget it anytime soon.