Review – An Untamed State by Roxane Gay

9781472120151One of the most uncompromising, unflinching, page-turning books I have read in a long time. It is a harrowing story that forces you to confront and challenge many important issues; gender, poverty, race and class to list but a few.

Mireille is visiting her Haitian parents in Port-au-Prince with her American husband and baby son when their car is stopped and Mireille is kidnapped. Her kidnappers demand a ransom from her wealthy father who refuses to pay. What follows is thirteen days of horror and deprivation.

The novel is told in two distinct parts; before and after. During Mireille’s horrific ordeal we get flashbacks to her life before; her childhood growing up in America, the wealth her family enjoy and the story of how she met and fell in love with her husband. Interspersed with the flashbacks is Mirelle’s father and husband’s story as they come into conflict over what should be done to get Mireille back. And all the time Mireille must endure the torment of her captors.

Roxane Gay does not take a backward step throughout the novel. You are forced to confront, firstly what her captors do to her and what this means for Mireille afterwards. Mireille must change herself to survive, she must bury her humanity to somehow protect it. She is broken mentally and physically and must somehow find a way to put herself back together, if that is even possible, a recover what humanity she has left. Gay’s portrayal of the post traumatic stress Mireille suffers is as honest, raw and emotional as the trauma she experiences.

While what happens to Mireille is confronting Roxane Gay uses this to open your eyes to other aspects we should also confront. She challenges us as a reader to explore the way we think about gender, race and class. Gender is at the heart of the violence that is done to Mirielle but the cause is wealth and poverty with everyone’s perceptions clouded by race.

This a novel that will shock you, surprise you and make you rethink your view of the world and the people in it. It is exactly what all great fiction should do and does so with style, honesty and empathy. It will strike a nerve, it will make you angry and break your heart and is a novel you will never forget, and nor should you.

Buy the book here…

What Were Girls Like?

I am JulietThree recent YA historical fiction novels by Australian women (all published by HarperCollins/ABC Books) inhabit times when girls had to bend to the influence of men and were comparatively powerless.

The Raven’s Wing is Frances Watts’s first novel for teens. It is set in Ancient Rome where fifteen year-old Claudia is strategically offered in marriage several times. Making an alliance which can best help her family is paramount. Primarily a romance, the book addresses Claudia’s growing awareness of human rights (here through the fate of slaves) which interferes with her sense of duty and makes her a much more interesting character than the docile cipher she is expected to be.

I am Juliet by Australian Children’s Laureate, Jackie French, is based on Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. French’s Juliet is a fleshed-out focal character. Superficially she shares some of Claudia’s privileged lifestyle features: attended by maids who wash and dress her and apply her makeup; elaborate meals; and protection behind high walls. Medicinal and other herbs and plants are a feature of their times; and Juliet and Claudia both face imminent arranged marriage, but are aware of a dark man in shadows. Their stories, also, contain a story within a story.

Jackie French has reinterpreted Shakespeare previously – in her excellent Macbeth and Son which grapples with the nature of truth. She has also addressed the role of women in history, perhaps most notably in A Rose for the ANZAC Boys

Ratcatcher's Daughter Issy, the thirteen-year-old protagonist of Pamela Rushby’s The Ratcatcher’s Daughter, doesn’t share Claudia and Juliet’s privileged backgrounds. Set in a well-drawn Brisbane of 1900, Issy’s father is a ratcatcher during the bubonic plague. Issy is offered a scholarship to become a teacher but her family refuse it due to lack of money. The issue of the poor’s inability to take up opportunities that the rich assume is reiterated throughout the novel.

The Ratcatcher’s Daughter and I am Juliet include background notes about the historical period and other points of interest.

 These three books unite in their exploration of girls who are prepared to defy tradition to control their own lives, where possible, in spite of general lack of female empowerment. I hope that this really was possible and is not just a revisionist interpretation.

It is interesting that this crop of YA historical novels has appeared now. Are these authors finding a story-niche or reflecting current concern? Although surely girls today, particularly in a country such as Australia, are more fortunate in their freedom and choice. The Raven's Wing