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An Untamed State
By Roxane Gay
Reviewed by Chris Schahfer
An Untamed State is a bit hard for me to rate, since it's a book that succeeds in just about all fields; its characters are fleshed out and complex and evolve over the course of the book without coming to any easy conclusions, its story, which recounts the thirteen-day kidnap of Mireille Jameson, as well as its aftermath, is compelling from a dramatic point of view and develops in ways that are at once surprising and sensible (although the situations seem a little stock in the beginning), and when Gay writes at fever pitch, she manages to make you feel alongside her protagonist Mireille. There are also complex undercurrents of social commentary here, commentary that never settles on one side or the other.
Yet the prose never quite gets there. It's a shame, because in many ways Gay wrote a great novel, but the choice of words involves much bet-hedging. You might've heard about the recent backlash against adverbs in fiction, and if that backlash has ever struck you as pedantic, maybe redundant phrases like "cooed softly" and "dragged slowly" will make you change your mind. On top of that, she too often telegraphs what's already been implied in the text - call it Franzen syndrome, I suppose. Her decision to alternate between first- and third-person narration every few chapters sometimes works, but I'm not sure if she took full advantage of the switches; she works well in Mireille's perspective and voice, but doesn't seem to have as solid of a handle when she follows the other characters through the third person.
Still, there are enough good moments to make this worth your time, and a few astonishing ones. Her description of the early romance between Mireille and her husband Michael, a would-be man of action hampered by circumstance, brims with emotion while at the same time analyzing culture clash, and the descriptions of Mireille's trauma are astonishing. The novel feels most confident when it deals with her attempts to cope with her ordeal and reintegrate herself into society, turning from kidnap narrative to road novel as it moves along. Plus I have to hand it to her for not taking the easy way out at any point, for not imparting any cheapo lessons or giving us any sort of cornball song-and-dance about the power of positive thinking. But come on, "cooed softly?" Is there any other way to coo?
Out of 10: 8.8, but feel free to add a few points if you're not a prose fiend like I am.