this is a brutal and unsparing portrayal of sexual violence. it's also a critique of economic disparity and an angry indictment of patriarchy (which mthis is a brutal and unsparing portrayal of sexual violence. it's also a critique of economic disparity and an angry indictment of patriarchy (which may or may not go hand in hand with economic disparity).
a young haitian lawyer, black, married to a handsome nebraskan man (white), with an übercute little kid, is kidnapped during her visit to haiti to see her family. kidnapping apparently is the order of the day in haiti at the time (pre-earthquake) and wealthy people expect it and do all they can to prevent it. mireille's family's security measures are not enough and soon the kidnappers are asking for one million american dollars as ransom for mireille. sort of inexplicably, near the beginning of the novel mireille, who narrates the vast majority of the chapters, tells us that her kidnappers were scared young men. this sense of forgiveness, acceptance, or empathy never returns in the novel; nor, frankly, do they seem that scared when we meet them. but there you have it.
in all likelihood that kidnapping would have gone off without a hitch and no-one would have gotten hurt if mireille's father had paid straight away. but mireille's father has opinions about how to handle situations like this (it's his first time, but of course he has been preparing for it forever), and decides not to negotiate with the kidnappers. this unleashes in the latter a barrage of sexual violence that goes on, relentlessly, for the entirety of the 13 days of the kidnapping. we are given a really precise sense of what this violence consists of and of what it feels like, and it isn't pretty. in fact, it's barely tolerable. one night, after reading, i found myself shaking and unable to sleep. let's just say that i've never read sexual brutality described with such truthfulness. the only other book that made me equally horrified is Primo Levi's incredible narration of his life in auschwitz in Survival in Auschwitz, aka If This Is a Man. what these two books have in common is their masterful rendition of what it feels like to stop being human.
mireille alternates the narrative of what happens to her during her capture with stories of her life with her husband michael and of her pregnancies, only one of which goes to term. the narrative organization is pretty flawless, and while mireille's life before her capture emerges as nice (a lot of emphasis on desire between mireille and michael), there is always, looming, and by necessity, a sense of unease about men and their strange culture. in short, men are brutes who hurt women, michael notwithstanding. and michael is not a sweetie pie. he's a man of few words and he's as hungry for mireille as mireille is for him. given the narrative set up, though, this hunger is uncomfortable to the reader. you'd rather have them make french toast together than fuck intensely, overwhelmed by their love/desire for each other.
there is also the fact that michael's nebraskan family, made of farm-owning mom and dad, is none too pleased with michael's marrying someone of a different color, and makes absolutely no mystery of it. this is as painful and uncomfortable to mireille as you'd expect it to be, but michael seems kind of clueless about it.
the most powerful parts of the book are about the brutality and the cluelessness of men. the torture scenes are really, really good. roxane gay, who was born in nebraska but is of haitian origin, gives you a clear sense of how easily women turn from human beings to playthings in the hands of men. she gives, it seems to me, no rhyme or reason for this. the playing they are subjected to is fully sexual and fully sadistic, so that if we weren't used to this, if the object of such treatment were, say, animals rather than human beings, we would unquestioningly consider these men psychopaths. as it is, we consider them rapists, a category that is so over-present in all sorts of representational forms, we consider it pretty much natural. so one thing that roxane gay does well here is denaturalize all that, show it for the absolute pathological deadly derangement it is.
and we are extremely thankful for the fact that, after having given us a chillingly accurate idea of what these men are doing -- after making sure we get it -- she lets up and simply hints. not that it gets any easier for the reader, but the novel doesn't turn into torture porn one. tiny. bit. which it could easily have done.
men's cluelessness is portrayed in all its glory in the aftermath, when mireille is released. the major culprit, of course, is michael -- but then he was clueless from day one.
the second part of the book is about post traumatic agony, and there are some pretty brutal scenes (not quite as brutal as the torture scenes, but close) in which michael thinks that the best way to help his wife is to force her to do things she doesn't want to do. as anyone who understand trauma even just a bit knows, forcing someone who's been deprived of her autonomy in the most radical way to do things, even things that are supposedly good for her, is a sure recipe for intolerable retraumatization.
eventually respite comes to mirelle (thank god) from some unexpected and lovely place, and we can breathe a little (just a little).
two things that left me unhappy at the end: although reformed, michael seems to me to continue being a jerk, understanding his role as mireille's partner only in terms of "masculine" protectiveness and bluster. if the book means for that to be the case, and therefore critiques michael, this critique is not made clear at all. the other thing is small but it bugged me all the way through: mireille has two siblings but the second one, a male, is mentioned only at the beginning and never mentioned again. this is strange in a book in which the family and its dynamics are so closely analyzed. if i've missed something, please feel free to let me know in comment.
i think roxane gay puts material about nationhood, race, belonging and capitalism in the book, too -- especially about the mayhem that is bound to happen when very rich people live in close proximity to people who are absolutely destitute -- but, frankly, her analysis of gender relations is so bright and stark and powerful, the rest kind of falls by the wayside. ...more
this play is astonishing. the opening monologue is worth alone the play's weight in gold. the development of the story is mind-blowing, moving, and plthis play is astonishing. the opening monologue is worth alone the play's weight in gold. the development of the story is mind-blowing, moving, and pleasantly mystifying: a brilliant commentary of the State Of The World. i can't wait to teach it. ...more