Once upon a time, in a far-off land, I was kidnapped by a gang of fearless yet terrified young men with so much impossible hope beating inside their bodies it burned their very skin and strengthened their will right through their bones.
They held me captive for thirteen days.
They wanted to break me.
It was not personal.
I was not broken.
This is what I tell myself.
Mirelle is taken from her car in front of her husband, Michael, and their baby, Christophe, directly in front of the heavy steel gates at the bottom of the drive to her parents’ house in Haiti. She’s been taken because her father’s rich and the kidnappers believe he will pay a lot of money for her, his youngest and favourite daughter in U.S. dollars.
I dug my fingernails into my thighs and hoped my father would be a better man than I knew him to be, would ignore his convictions, would pay, and quickly. I hoped I did not know my father as well as I feared.
Mirelle’s father believes that the kidnappers will return her unharmed. He refuses to meet their ransom demands.
After Mirelle graduated from high school in America, her parents returned to Port-au-Prince.
He had his fill of working seventy hours a week, answering to white men who would never promote him even though he gave them more than twenty years of his life. My father started his own construction company and it soon became the largest, most successful firm in the country. He was the triumphant son returned.
He’s also seen one of his friends bankrupted by kidnappers and he’s not about to let the same happen to him. The consequence of his refusal to pay the ransom is that Mirelle is repeatedly raped and tortured.
The story of her captivity is told alongside that of her and Michael’s relationship. Michael is a white American who grew up on a farm in Nebraska. They have a fairly turbulent relationship, both of them capable of offending the other and both too stubborn to talk through what’s happened. Their worst arguments stem from comments about Haiti and this is something Mirelle also has to deal with from some of their friends in Miami where they live:
I am a curiosity to my American friends – a Haitian who is not from the slums or the countryside, a Haitian who has enjoyed a life of privilege. When I talk about my life in Haiti, they listen to my stories as if they are fairy tales, stories that could not possibly be true by nature of their goodness.
One of my friends mentioned a magazine article he read about how Haiti had surpassed Columbia as the kidnapping capital of the world. Another told us about a recent feature in a national magazine on the kidnapping epidemic – that was the word he used, as if kidnapping were a disease, a contagion that could not be controlled. There were comments about Vodou and that one movie with Lisa Bonet that made Bill Cosby mad at her. Soon everyone was offering their own desperate piece of information about my country, my people, about the violence and the poverty and the hopelessness, conjuring a place that does not exist anywhere but the American imagination.
In An Untamed State, Gay looks at privilege and power, whether it’s the privilege and power that comes with money; the privilege and power that comes with being white, or the privilege and power that comes with being male.
Mirelle’s privileged because her family have money and she’s had a university education but the fact that she’s female undercuts that as far as the kidnappers and, in refusing to pay the ransom, her father are concerned. That she is also stubborn and opinionated and has a temper, of course makes her even more problematic as a woman because that’s not what we’re supposed to be and it’s the reason the Commander gives her for treating her so brutally.
All of the characters in the novel are complex and not particularly easy to like (except perhaps Mirelle’s sister); Gay examines why Mirelle’s father refuses to see what’s happened to her; why her mother stands by her father; how her husband struggles to come to terms with Mirelle’s kidnapping, her family’s behaviour, and Haiti itself, and how Michael’s family treat her as a black woman. It’s also a novel about how America views Haiti and what affect that has on some Haitians whether rich or poor.
An Untamed State is a brutal, powerful novel tackling big themes – poverty, wealth, race, gender. Despite it only being January, I’ll be surprised if I read many better books this year.