Heartbreaking novel follows fairy tale format

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August 17, 2014 | 12:26 am

Roxane Gay’s powerful, heartbreaking debut novel, “An Untamed State,” (Grove Press, 368 pages, $16) takes you square by the shoulder from the first sentence and doesn’t let go until the final chapter.

“Once upon a time, in a far-off land, I was kidnapped by a gang of fearless yet terrified young men …”

If this opening sounds a bit like a fairy tale (we’re talking the Brothers Grimm here, not Disney), it’s intentional. Gay deftly constructs a gruesome, modern novel by leaning on plenty of standard fairy-tale tropes: a wealthy family palace, a kidnapped daughter; a hidden underworld, a deal struck with evil forces.

The result is a story so beautifully written it both breaks your heart and gives you hope.

American narrator Mireille Duval Jameson, the daughter of one of Haiti’s wealthiest men, brings her American family to Port-au-Prince for a beach weekend. When pulling out of their gated drive, their car is ambushed and Mireille is kidnapped and held for ransom.

However, her father, a man of “principles,” refuses to negotiate for her release. As a result, Mireille is subjected to 13 days of brutal rape and torture at the hands of her captors.

As Mireille slips into mental instability, she flashes back to her life before the kidnapping. These reflections offer some respite from the brutality, and also provide greater understanding of Mireille‘s personal relationships, which are tested not only when Mireille is kidnapped but when she is released.

And this is the twist: the book continues well past her release, revealing, as Mireille puts it, “how our fairy tales have been rewritten.” The subtle moral in the end is a thoughtful nod to the form, and makes for a perfect conclusion.

These final turns give us hope for Mireille, and these narrative decisions place Gay in the company of today’s best authors.

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