She’d always been a daddy’s girl, and when kidnappers targeted her, they counted on a tender father-daughter bond. For a paltry $1 million, wealthy Sebastien Duval would get his youngest child — Mireille, a Miami immigration lawyer and the mother of a baby boy — back unharmed. She was his favorite, or so the band of thugs had come to understand.
“My father doesn’t believe in paying kidnappers,” Mireille informs their leader, the Commander, and she is right, but even she does not expect to be abandoned by Sebastien. For 13 days he declines to save her, convinced that meeting the ransom demand would leave other family members more vulnerable to abduction and him more vulnerable to extortion.
While Sebastien upholds his principles inside his walled mansion in Port-au-Prince, Mireille is imprisoned in a slum elsewhere in the city. She is gang raped and terrorized, beaten and burned, her body shattered, her mind irreparably harmed. To her, death seems preferable.
This is the Haitian hellscape of Roxane Gay’s debut novel, “An Untamed State,” 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.
The novel is split into two parts, the kidnapping and its aftermath. Woven through it is the love story of Mireille, the American daughter of Haitian parents who moved back to Port-au-Prince when their children were grown, and her husband, Michael, a blond Nebraskan raised on a farm. The Haiti in which Mireille is kidnapped is pre-earthquake but ravaged by overwhelming poverty — a dangerous place in part because so few have so much, and so many have almost nothing.
The book’s title refers to Haiti, and also to the condition to which Mireille’s trauma reduces her. She becomes a wild creature, frightened of nearly everything, including herself, and that doesn’t go away once she’s free. She has no trust left, certainly not for her father, and not even for gentle Michael. Any man could hurt her.
Before the kidnapping, when Mireille is torn from Michael and their little boy, Christophe, just outside the gates to her parents’ house, she had been living a golden life with her easy, happy baby and her husband. From the moment they met, Michael has been crazy about her, though it can be hard to fathom why.
Even in the part of her life that Mireille calls “the before,” she is arrogant, entitled, and given to drama, with a hair-trigger sense of outrage often directed at Michael, who is faithful as a dog. Her fits of temper sometimes turn physical, and she has a habit of running away, literally, when she feels emotionally threatened. She cannot be easy to live with, and as central characters go, she is frequently not likable. This may be Gay’s boldest stroke in “An Untamed State”: She gives us a heroine whose very ferocity can be off-putting.
We do root for Mireille — of course we root for her — against the barbarians who are holding her captive, and later we root for her to become whole again.
But weaknesses in the storytelling test our suspension of disbelief. Mireille’s psychological disintegration — not the fact of it, but the depiction of it — feels abrupt and imposed rather than organic. Likewise, Gay stacks the deck against Michael in the book’s second half, removing a great chunk of his intelligence and uniting the other characters in an unjustifiably low opinion of his husbandly behavior.
And certain words and phrases pop up repeatedly, sometimes inappropriately, as in the reference to Michael “whiling away the hours” of Mireille’s captivity. She, too, “whiled the hours and days away. . . between one horror and the next.”
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 is a journalist in New York and a regular contributor to The New York Times. She can be reached at laura.collinshughes@ gmail.com.