I’m not finished with An Untamed State yet, but I’m nearly there. I haven’t had too much time for reading, because even vacations are a bit of work when two of your traveling companions are ages 4.10 and 8.
I read in the early morning when the boys are still asleep, out by the pool deck, town shimmering alive, rooftops and windows like scales of fish, glistening in the sun. I read at 3am when I wake up from another dream about an earthquake, and I wobble to the bathroom for a pee, cool marble tiles underfoot, and I slip back into bed and reach for the book under my pillow, because I am powerless. There’s a nifty nightlight in the wall by the bed, and a gauzy curtain hanging like a canopy. I read till it’s too late, or too early. I know we are six hours ahead but that is a meaningless thing.
I read in the evening after putting the kids to sleep, and after having my cigarette, and when my husband raises his eyebrows in my direction, I shake my head and remind him how bloated I’ve been feeling. Which is the truth. The other other truth is I just want to read, because in this beautiful luxury resort, I’ve found the biggest luxury of all is having an hour or two just to flip pages in a book and stare out to sea when I am done.
I’ve finished two novels now, both zesty and witty and smart, the kind of books that are like a delectable soufflé. Not treacle, not even ‘breezy’ - because of my entertaining middle-class family tragicomedies I demand a certain style too - mainly, the authors must know how to write, how to turn a cliche on its head, how to make me see beauty in the simplest of sentences. The books have been lovely to read and take in, a balm.
I don’t know why I saved An Untamed State till two days before we leave Crete. There was no lottery I drew to pick the order. I started reading it in the evening, cool breeze, boys asleep on their spongy white cots, my husband having a cold local beer by the pool. My heart raced after the first paragraph, and it’s been steadily racing since, just like the blurb on the cover warned me it would.
When not reading it, between last jaunts to town, between reapplying sunscreen on the boys and packing bags and deleting pictures from my iPhone that are too blurry or redundant or haven’t done this trip justice, I think about what I have read. I think about the story. I think about how the story fits into my life. I think about Mireille and what happened to her. I’m past the part where she’s trapped in the Commander’s cage, but the terror of her returning to her former life is as impossible and brutal as her torture was.
I can’t stop thinking about it. About the cage and what happened to her. About her passionate fairytale marriage. About the fathers in the book, and the mothers. About the cigarette burns. I feel wrecked and fortified. I feel cracked in two and stronger than before. I don’t know how to tweet Roxane Gay about my feelings for her novel. I fear I would come off giddy. But it’s been a long time since a book has clearly made such an impact on who I am, and who I have become.
It’s not the violence that lingers, though reading those scenes, I forget to breathe. I don’t come from Haiti and I’ve never been to Haiti, but I imagine its beauty and I think I understand it’s violence. I know from violence. I know men who look at women as the cause and the effect of all their impotent dreams and fears. Poland has many corners and pockets where women are smacked slapped raped pinched warned threatened belittled and ignored. It’s a fiber of our culture too: the lurking of drunk, desperate, angry, forgotten Eastern European men and boys, oppressed by dictatorship afer dictatorship, by demons real and imagined, men and boys who cannot control anything except for their wives and girlfriends, whom they push against the wall and wallop in the stomach. I’ve seen women punched and broken. I’ve seen their denial, a deep and vast sea of its own, prone to drownings.
Roxane Gay writes about violence with scathing, simple words, like a fire that burns elegantly, flames like rope. I don’t get squeamish. I don’t mind bad language of graphic sex or detailed violence. There is nothing proper about the woman in me. At my core, I am unbridled, and struggle with my own kind of fury. If there’s anything I can’t stand it’s pretense, especially in my writers. There is not an ounce of pretense in Gay’s writing, and yet there, in the midst of sweltering heat and dirt and anger, there is a quiet, unstoppable dignity.
I have never seen or known the violence Roxane’s Miri goes through. Her writing has made me see it, imagine and feel it - late at night, staring past Spinalonga Island, in my fancy fucking hotel suite with a private pool - I read and know in my bones what privilege means to someone who grew up with none. How it gnaws on you, this newfound wealth and those raggedy beginnings. That is what lingers. What it means to be rich when u were once poor, and what it means to go back to a place that you are forever indebted to and conflicted about, and try to walk with your held high, and hope that the joy on your face at being home again, is not mistaken for arrogance.
Children of immigrants see life - the one in their adopted country and their first one - as if through those lenses optometrists place against your forehead during an eye exam. The lens flips and clicks quickly. Is this better? Or this? Number one? Or number two? Things sharpen and fade, contours shift, the smallest of differences, and you must make a decision every few seconds - is this one better or is that one. That I have in common with Mireille Duval. I too have a husband who loves me deeply, purely and sometimes is at a loss at how to tame me. “I hoped he would understand he could not love me without loving where I am from.” I read that sentence over and over again, relief flooding me. It’s been nine years now and he’s been to my country seven times and he loves it because he understand I need him to love it.
Now we are in another hotel, in Athens. We have two rooms, and our balconies overlook the sea - everywhere u go in Greece, inescapable, the water - and two bright swimming pools on the ground floor glimmer like giant puddles of aquamarine. I feel blessed. I feel lost. I remember just days ago being in my grandmothers apartment in Poland, staring at the painting she’s had in her tiny room, of a bearded, watchful Jesus. I try to help my family back there. I try to help them without calling attention to it. I have nothing in common with people born into wealth but here I am staying in the same hotels they stay. I feel badly. I feel fine. The most I desire as a mother is to ground my sons and to remind them - respect people and remember where your mother came from.
I have one and half days left to the end of our vacation and 67 pages left to the end of this magnificent, seering book. I don’t want either to end, but in a way I am ready. Both will stay with me for a long time. Sometimes you read something, and go somewhere, and you are forced to take inventory of your own life, and it is those moments where you are reborn, where you remember what you are.