Toward the end of “An Untamed State,” the debut novel from the essayist and critic Roxane Gay, Mireille Duval Jameson, a Haitian woman who is kidnapped while she is visiting her home country with her husband and son, looks back on her dreadful ordeal and the ways that other people have tried to understand it. “I have seen the movie more times than anyone knows,” she tells the reader of a schlocky television account of her captivity and release. “It comforts me to imagine my kidnapping had been that neatly endured and resolved.”

(Credit: Grove/Atlantic)
(Credit: Grove/Atlantic)

An Untamed State” aims to complicate all sorts of narratives about sexual assault and economic inequality. Gay has set herself quite a task, trying to balance the demands of preserving a fairy-tale universality for her characters while also making them specific people. She succeeds with Mireille, a child of immense privilege who ranged far away from home to make her career and marriage, who finds the identity she built for herself stripped away by  kidnappers who see only her womanhood and her family’s money.

When Mireille is kidnapped on her way to what was supposed to be a calm day at the beach, it is by “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.” Mireille and her captors both initially see each other as abstractions. The struggle between them is waged with terrible violence but with the shared goal of being seen as individuals. Mireille wants to be more than a symbol of privilege, and her kidnappers want her to know the specific reasons they are so angry about inequality, even though their criminal activities have raised their standards of living above those of their slum-dwelling neighbors.

The Commander is driven by what Mireille calls “mostly incoherent, half-formed political ideas, angry barbs about wealth and women, the ramblings of a man without real ideology.” His resentments were fostered by his father, a chauffeur, and the experiences of his mother, who was attacked by a wealthy man.

TiPierre turns out to have experienced more directly the sort of violence that comes from inequality: he ran away from the wealthy family to which he was indentured, who took advantage of his financial vulnerabilities to trap him in an archaic form of servitude. Where the Commander wants revenge, visiting the sort of harm his mother suffered on Mireille, TiPierre seems to believe that something genuine and un-coerced can blossom between himself and his captive.

“I’ve always wondered what it would be like to be with someone like you,” he tells Mireille. “I see you women, how you wear your designer clothes and your beautiful shoes and your dark sunglasses, your French perfumes. It’s like the s— of this place doesn’t touch you.”

Both men’s delusions — that retribution can crack the shackles of inequality and that rape is a means of courtship — are intensely dangerous. Gay makes us feel the risks in both the Commander’s gun and knife, and TiPierre’s inability to understand that he is engaged in violence rather than flirtation. Sometimes, she does so by drawing out descriptions of Mireille’s sufferings in a way that might be considered pornographic or sadistic had they come from another author’s pen. Reading passages like the one in which Mireille uses a gun as a tool of enticement sometimes feels like an endurance test.

Mireille’s ordeals also produce an unclear sense of Haiti. For much of the novel, her husband refuses to embrace his wife’s country, recoiling from its poverty in a way that Mireille sees as evidence of his limitations and relatively coddled existence. By the end of “An Untamed State,” though, Mireille is sending money to earthquake victims like a good, guilt-ridden American, and she makes one final trip home before abandoning Haiti forever. Are we meant to believe that Mireille was wrong about Haiti and that her husband was right? Or that the country, with its savage inequalities, has crushed someone who tried to love it?

Gay might have clarified this point by spending as much time developing the people who are kind to Mireille as she does on her tormenters. Nadine, a maid who works for Mireille’s parents, sees their extended refusal to pay Mireille’s ransom as a sign of stupidity and cruelty. But “An Untamed State” does not develop what might have been an alternate perspective on Haiti and inequality. The book treats women who show Mireille some kindness during her captivity, only to betray her later, as similarly opaque.

Lorraine, Mireille’s mother-in-law, spends much of the book standing in for cranky Midwestern racism. But after Mireille returns to the United States and flees to Lorraine’s farm, she suddenly emerges as a figure of perfect understanding who gives Mireille dough to knead when she needs something to hit, and she admonishes her son for his weakness and inability to help his wife. We know where Mireille’s psychological complexity comes from, but Lorraine might have been more comprehensible, less defined by the aw-shucks cadences Gay puts in her dialogue, if we knew more of the older woman’s story.

Gay makes Mireille’s perspective wonderfully specific. After her attack, she cannot bring herself to eat or to accommodate a doctor’s instruments inside her, but when she gets a photograph of her son, she finds that “I wanted to tear the picture into tiny pieces and eat each one so the child would always be with me.” Gay shows us how a routine patdown at an airport security checkpoint becomes unendurable for Mireille. “The agent’s hands were a blade, peeling me apart, slowly separating what remained of me,” she tells us.

When, toward the end of the novel, Mireille and her husband have another child, a girl, Mireille explains that: “I rarely let her out of my sight but not in a way that would make her helpless or weak. Girl children are not safe in a world where there are men. They need to learn to be strong.”

“An Untamed State” is the dark fairy-tale chronicle of Mireille’s journey toward her own strength, taking square aim at the idea that what defines that genre is its happy endings, rather than the terrible journeys to eventual compromises. But damsels in distress are not the only people whose ordeals matter, and monsters are not the only figures who can be complicated by a psychologically astute writer. Gay might have upset the conventions of fairy tales even further by teaching us not just how a princess survives but also how maids, mothers-in-law and paupers have learned to live with men as well.

Alyssa Rosenberg blogs about pop culture for The Washington Post's Opinions section.