“I am so excited you are going to read this book, I need to share how good it is with someone. ” So said the friend who lent me this and who has given it a place in her top 3 best books ever. And it’s easy to see why.
Mirielle is the American daughter of a wealthy Haitian businessman who one day, setting out on a trip to swim in the ocean with her one year old son, Christophe, is kidnapped at gun point in front of her father’s gated estate outside Port au Prince. So begins a 13 day ordeal during which she is raped, mentally and physically tortured, and spiritually broken. We know from the outset that Mirielle survives and is freed, so there’s an absence of tension in that respect. Instead we get the tension that exists between our expectations of others, and how they behave in reality. Between the expectations we have of ourselves, and the truth that’s exposed in a crisis. This overlays and underpins a plot that is harrowing, language that is as direct as a kick in the gut, and a central character as complicated, remarkable and interesting as they come.
Divided into two distinct sections, and woven through with the story of Mirielle’s childhood, her parents’ romantic love story and her own stormy courtship with her husband. Michael, I actually found the second part, once Mirielle is released, the more compelling. It follows her return to America with her husband and son, where the process of healing both her body and her mind is detailed painstakingly. There’s a moment when she’s curled in a ball, hiding under the bed at her mother in law’s house and I had to put the book down to weep. Proper tears, that flowed for a long time, not just the welling up that comes often from being moved by something. Interestingly, the first section, where all the brutality and violence that drives Mirielle under that bed occurs, didn’t overcome me in quite the same way. I think I was numb, but also the style is different, at times more documentary than drama. Because after all, some things don’t need embellishment: they are powerful enough on their own.
Perhaps the real impact of this book though, comes from the painful questions at its core about about guilt and innocence. Mirielle’s is dehumanised by her captors, subjected to the most horrific violence. We are in no doubt that she – nobody – deserves such treatment. And yet, her background, her privilege, her wealth mean she must ask whether she is not also responsible for equally heinous crimes. As the leader of the kidnapping gang tells her “You are complicit even if you do not actively contribute to the problem because you do nothing to solve it.” Her body not only pays the price for for her father’s obstinate refusal to pay the seven figure ransom the kidnappers demand, it also pays the price for the collective sins that rich Haitians commit daily by ignoring the poverty that surrounds them. In the words of one reviewer, her body becomes “the landscape on which a political war is waged by men who want to use it for their own ideological purposes.” Hasn’t it ever been thus, Gay’s unflinching graphic detail and plot twists, which time and again see women doing men’s bidding, whether it be out of fear, love or misplaced loyalty, assert. But AN UNTAMED STATE is concerned with something bigger than feminism alone: an enormous space in which the concept of equality and justice is messy, difficult and bloody.
Such moral complexity is handled deftly by Gay. This isn’t a book that feels weighed down by the challenging issues it raises. Nor, despite it’s subject matter, is it ultimately bleak. On the contrary, there’s something hopeful that radiates from the pages, something strong but quiet that reminds us things which get broken can usually be fixed – whether that’s bodies, families or corrupt states. And it isn’t a book that I raced through, oddly, given my propensity to do so and the way it drew me in. What it is, is a book that made me want to rage, to sob, to cheer and to reflect – and then, finally, to share with others. Just as my friend foretold.