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An Untamed State Paperback – May 6, 2014

4.3 out of 5 stars 320 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

From Booklist

*Starred Review* While we give merely cursory thought to what the kidnappings of the wealthy in impoverished nations might entail, rising star Gay exposes the full horror of this intimate crime and stealthy weapon of social decimation in her superbly written and excoriating first tale of terror and suspense. Set in Haiti, where Gay, the child of Haitian immigrants, spent her summers, the novel opens with Miami-based attorney Mirelle visiting her rich and influential parents with Michael, her white Nebraskan husband, and their baby son. The family is heading to the beach when they’re ambushed by men with machine guns, who drag Mirelle away. Sharp-tongued and aggressive under normal circumstances, Mirelle is furious, though she believes this “business transaction” will be quickly completed. Instead, her proud and ruthless father refuses to pay the ransom, and she stubbornly refuses to beg. Her enraged captors retaliate with an endless siege of rape and torture. Gay contrasts the brutality of the present with the romantic past as traumatized yet stoic Mirelle remembers her and Michael’s rocky courtship, unlikely love, and the reactions of their very different families. Gay is a daring and transfixing storyteller, depicting with valor and deep intent hellishly intrusive violence, shocking betrayal, and psychological devastation, the poison fruits of prejudice, injustice, greed, and desperation. Ferocious, gripping, and unforgettable. --Donna Seaman


Praise for An Untamed State:

Longlisted for the 2014 Flaherty-Dunnan First Novel Prize

“[A] commanding début . . . Mireille’s struggle to maintain a sense of self while being denied her freedom produces the novel’s most powerful chapters.”—New Yorker

“Roxane Gay’s riveting debut, An Untamed State, captivates from its opening sentence and doesn’t let go. . . . Let this be the year of Roxane Gay: you’ll tear through An Untamed State, but ponder it for long after.”—Nolan Feeney, Time.com

“A fairy tale . . . its complex and fragile moral arrived at through great pain and high cost. . . . Perhaps Haiti, too, is a beautiful princess, well-versed in the vagaries of men, still searching for a happily ever after.” —Holly Bass, The New York Times Book Review

“Poignant . . . haunting . . . When Mireille is finally freed, her rocky adjustment harkens to that of the mother in Emma Donoghue's Room. . . . Gay writes of her homeland beautifully, describing it in the conflicting, nuanced way that will ring familiar to Americans whose parents hail from troubled lands. . . . Gorgeous writing . . . A wonderful and affecting read.”—Rasha Madkour, Associated Press

“Gay may be working in territory many American readers know through the lyrical stories of Edwidge Danticat, but her style is wholly her own: direct, bracing and propulsive. . . . [A] smart, searing novel.” —Ron Charles, The Washington Post

“To say that An Untamed State ‘tells the story’ of Mireille Duval Jameson - an American lawyer, wife, and new mother, who, while visiting her Haitian parents in Port Au Prince, falls victim to the wave of kidnappings plaguing that city - would be inadequate. Rather, Gay compels her readers to breathe and bleed [it]. . . . Brutally and vividly rendered.” —Abby Frucht, The Philadelphia Inquirer

“Bold . . . A terrific read. . . . The character development of Gay’s protagonist, Mireille, is particularly well-crafted and nuanced; her portrayal of a woman who fights her strongest fight to resist being defeated by her captors is compelling and agonizingly felt by the reader. . . . This novel . . . will reward the reader.” —Jim Carmin, Minneapolis Star Tribune

“I applaud Gay’s courage: She writes candidly, vividly, and necessarily . . . You will find it difficult to resist her flawless pacing [and] sharp, clear prose.” —Ariel Gonzalez, The Miami Herald

“Set in Haiti, Roxane Gay’s first novel, An Untamed State, is a roundhouse kick to notions of privilege.” —Elissa Schappell, Vanity Fair (Hot Type)

“Wrenching . . . Vividly written.” —Jennifer Weiner, USA Today

“Clear your schedule now! Once you start this book, you will not be able to put it down. An Untamed State is a novel of hope intermingled with fear. . . . It is written at a pace that will match your racing heart.”—Edwidge Danticat, author of Claire of the Sea Light

“A gripping psychological portrait of how trauma remakes the body to respond only to itself . . . Fans of Gay’s work as an editor at The Rumpus and a columnist for Salon (among other places) will see a lush, sensual side to her writing here, turned to describe brutal facts of subjugation and punishment, the agony of waiting to be rescued and the protection of the brain." —Ellen Wernecke, The Onion AV Club

“Harrowing: truly, it harrows. With iron teeth it pulls up things that do not want to be pulled up. . . . Remarkable.” —NPR

“Excellent . . . Brilliant, eye opening, and necessary. . . . Gay’s prose is direct and muscular, unflinchingly confronting the reality she’s created. . . . To call it ‘hard to put down’ is an understatement; I lost sleep over it, and won’t forget it anytime soon.” —Alison Hallett, Portland Mercury

“[Roxane Gay] has written one of the most unsettling books of the year. And she’s just getting started. . . . Dark, gripping . . . It’s a compelling and at times painful read that addresses the issues of economic privilege, immigration, and sexual assault.” —Tomi Obaro, Chicago Magazine

“A gripping tale of a young mother ensnared in Haiti’s explosive class struggle.” —Natalie Beach, O Magazine (“15 Titles to Pick Up Now”)

An Untamed State is breathless, artful, disturbing and original. I won’t ever forget it.” —Meg Wolitzer, author of The Interestings

“Poised to affect anyone who reads the book. . . . Gay weaves a story that is thrilling and readable and, surprisingly, incredibly enjoyable. It is, ultimately, about survival, but walking away from the story unaffected—both the reader and the characters within—is impossible.” —Jessi Cape, The Austin Chronicle

“There are times when reading a novel is painful. Not because the prose is lacking or the narrative lags, but because the subject matter verges on the unbearable. Roxane Gay’s debut novel, An Untamed State, falls under this last category. And yet, you must read it anyway. For beyond missing out on a story of such emotional power, you will miss out, as well, on this emerging writer’s abundant talent and insight, all on stunning display here. . . . An Untamed State is a rich, beautifully crafted novel, which should establish Roxane Gay as a writer who has something important to say and who knows how to say it.” —Susan Buttenwieser, The Brooklyn Rail

An Untamed State is the kind of book you have to keep putting down because you can’t believe how good it is. Awesome, powerful, impossible to ignore, Roxane Gay is a literary force of nature. An Untamed State arrives like a hurricane.” —Mat Johnson, author of Pym

“Roxane Gay is a rockstar talent who’s already left her mark on the literary world, and her dazzling debut novel is certain to cement her place. . . . [a] haunting tale.” —Morgan Ribera, Bustle (“May 2014’s Best Books”)

“Riveting.” —Anjali Enjeti, Paste Magazine (“The Best Novels of 2014 (So Far)”)

“[A] startling debut novel . . . There are no easy answers to be found in An Untamed State, and Gay, in elegant, fierce, poetic prose that evokes early-career Margaret Atwood, forces her characters to reach across all borders to find some final sense of reason. It’s a hard-won discovery, surely, but one absolutely worth the journey. This is a novel not easily forgotten.” —Tod Goldberg, Las Vegas Weekly (4/5 stars)

An Untamed State is a harrowing, suspenseful novel about the connections between sexual violence and political rage, narrated in a voice at once traumatized and eerily controlled. Roxane Gay is a remarkable writer, an astute observer of Haitian society and a deeply sympathetic, unflinching chronicler of the compromises people make in order to survive under the most extreme conditions.” —Tom Perrotta, author of Little Children and Nine Inches

“[A] riveting debut novel . . . There is such a staggering sense of strength, confidence and integrity to Gay's telling. . . . An Untamed State is a gem, blasted into beauty by the world's harshest conditions. This gripping debut has set the table for many great works to come.” –Margaret Wappler, Bookforum

“[A] superbly written and excoriating first tale of terror and suspense . . . Gay is a daring and transfixing storyteller. . . . Ferocious, gripping, and unforgettable.” —Donna Seaman, Booklist (starred review)

“From the astonishing first line to the final scene, An Untamed State is magical and dangerous. I could not put it down. Pay attention to Roxane Gay; she’s here to stay.” —Tayari Jones, author of Silver Sparrow and Leaving Atlanta

“Harrowing . . . It’s terrifying, this novel, but heartbreaking, because [Mireille’s] relationships are part of the dilemma. . . . I felt this powerfully.” —John Freeman, BOMB

“Gay brilliantly writes of the story’s external events while skillfully capturing Mireille’s internal anguish.”—Library Journal (starred review)

“A simmering, sometimes brutal examination of love, privilege, the meaning of home, and the horrific damage that can come to women at the hands of men. . . . It would be a spoiler to say who does the most to help Mireille out of the horrors and back into life, but there is someone. And in that memorably lovely arc, An Untamed State — a novel partly about betrayal by one’s own family — becomes a novel about familial redemption, too.”—Laura Collins-Hughes, The Boston Globe

“A harrowing and emotionally cleareyed vision of one woman’s ordeal during and after her kidnapping in Haiti. . . remarkable . . . A cutting and resonant debut.”—Kirkus Reviews (starred review)

“A searing portrait of a politically and economically divided Haiti . . . Deeply felt . . . Disturbing and frighteningly resonant.”—Publishers Weekly

“Incredible and unflinching.”—Jessica Valenti, The Guardian U.S.

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Product Details

  • Paperback: 368 pages
  • Publisher: Grove Press, Black Cat; 1St Edition edition (May 6, 2014)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0802122515
  • ISBN-13: 978-0802122513
  • Product Dimensions: 1.5 x 5.5 x 8 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.3 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (320 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #55,658 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Customer Reviews

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By Mocha Girl VINE VOICE on April 21, 2014
Format: Paperback Vine Customer Review of Free Product ( What's this? )
An Untamed State is a novel that spotlights victims of trauma and their road to recovery. The central character, Mirielle, is the American-born daughter of Haitian parents. Her parents, born from humble beginnings eventually move back to Haiti to continue their prosperous business ventures. While visiting her parents with her husband and infant son, Mireille is kidnapped, repeatedly gang-raped, physically and psychologically tortured for nearly two weeks because her father refuses to pay the ransom for her release.

The first half of the novel is told from Mireille’s point of view opening with the kidnapping and two weeks of captivity where details of her abuse yield some cringe-worthy passages. It is introspective in nature because the reader stays with her while she systemically invokes her will to survive despite the toll it takes on her body and psyche. Insight into her mindset and other character backstories are encapsulated in flashback segments delivered while in captivity as things progress from bad to worse. The author succeeded in giving the reader a strong sense of place gained from a frightened and beaten heroine struggling to survive the nightmare as negotiations deteriorate. The second half of the book is post-kidnapping and deals with her suffering terribly from post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), her physical and mental recuperation, her husband's struggles and frustration, and her parent’s guilt and shame.

This is a character-driven novel that contains some elements of social commentary (Haitian class and educational inequality, social disparities), romance, familial dysfunction, and politics. However, the vast majority of the book focuses on the torture and the aftereffects of dealing with PTSD.
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Format: Paperback Vine Customer Review of Free Product ( What's this? )
Near the end of Roxane Gay's debut novel, the narrator reports the existence of "an unauthorized movie" based on her life "that airs regularly on a cable network." Of its optimistic ending, she notes dismissively, "It comforts me to imagine my kidnapping had been that neatly endured and resolved." This is clearly meant as a rejection of the pat morality and predictable emotional progression of made-for-TV movies, but it doesn't quite come off, for the simple and unfortunate reason that AN UNTAMED STATE is much closer to such fare than it realizes. It's elevated by a powerful if over-elaborated character study of its protagonist and a fairly sophisticated understanding of the shattering effects of trauma, but unnecessary detail and a poorly-realized key supporting character make this a good novel with flashes of greatness rather than an all-around great novel. Either way, it's eminently worth reading for those interested in its very contemporary themes.

Mireille Duval Jameson is the daughter of a wealthy Haitian contractor; her life has been one of privilege rather than the poverty most Americans, including Mireille's husband Michael, imagine when they think of Haiti. But her sheltered existence is destroyed when gangsters kidnap her and demand an enormous ransom. Mireille's father refuses to pay, and she enters a world of unspeakable suffering, where survival may require the abandonment of all her happy memories, the destruction of her very identity. But after the terror ends, can she rebuild that identity, or is it too late to return to the life she shared with her devoted husband and their infant son?
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Roxane Gay's novel tells the story of Mirielle, a young Haitian American mother kidnapped from her husband and son within the opening pages. The remainder is certainly fast paced, as other readers have commented, but it fell a bit flat for me. It took some thinking to pin down why exactly I felt that way, after all, the book deals with heavy themes (rape, PTSD, abuse, class warfare) in a very in your face, unabashed fashion.

I think it's the characterization. Both Mirielle and the Commander (the man orchestrating her abuse) felt one dimensional and almost cartoon-ish at times in their words and actions. It was predictable, but not in a true-to-life way. More in a cliche, that's what someone on TV would say in that circumstance kind of way. The only character who read three-dimensionally was Mirielle's husband, Michael. As such, the second half of the novel dealing with her recovery from her ordeal was much more engaging, as some chapters were from Michael's POV.


I also found the ending to be a bit rushed, scattered and unsatisfying. Things move very quickly from her not wanting to be touched to trying to have a baby with Michael. The author glosses over five years and nearly the entire recovery process, or at least the important parts of it, in less than a chapter. Mirielle's running into the Commander at a Miami restaurant didn't really add anything to the story in my mind. The scene with her father could have been powerful had it now been sandwiched between other unnecessary resolutions.
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