Roxane Gay’s memoir of living in a large body

“Hunger: A Memoir of (My) Body” (Harper), by Roxane Gay

At her heaviest, Roxane Gay weighed 577 pounds. In her powerful, at times harrowing, new memoir, “Hunger,” Gay explains how she got that way and what it’s like to live “trapped in a cage” of her own making.

It’s the story of a “carefree young girl ... who felt safe in her body” until she was “gang-raped by a boy I thought I loved and a group of his friends.” Then she “ate and ate and ate to build my body into a fortress,” which comforted her in the moment but failed to address “this cavern of loneliness inside me that I have spent my whole life trying to fill.”

On one level “Hunger” is a straight-up memoir, the story of a shy, studious girl, the beloved daughter of Haitian immigrants, who endures a humiliating adolescence, an emotional breakdown in college and the “lost years” of her 20s when “I spent most of my waking hours online, talking to strangers.”

There she finds forums for rape and sexual abuse survivors, as well as chatrooms for people into BDSM (bondage, submission and sadomasochism). Next comes a series of dead-end jobs, a return to school and eventual success as a writer.

While sketching the broad outlines of her life, Gay, who is now in her early 40s, also delivers a fierce polemic about what it means to live in a morbidly obese black body in a society that worships thinness, whiteness and fitness, especially for women.

A novelist, cultural critic and professor best known for the 2014 essay collection “Bad Feminist,” Gay has a vivid, telegraphic writing style, which serves her well. Repetitive and recursive, it propels the reader forward with unstoppable force even though we know there will be no conventionally happy ending.

“This is not a weight-loss memoir,” she warns readers at the outset. “I don’t have any powerful insight into what it takes to overcome an unruly body and unruly appetites.” What she has is insight aplenty about culture and society, particularly the medical establishment, which she blasts for treating fatness as pathological, and the fashion/entertainment industry, which rakes in big bucks by making women feel insecure about their looks.

“Does anyone feel comfortable in their bodies?” she muses at the end. “Glossy magazines lead me to believe that this is a rare experience, indeed. ... Every woman I know is on a perpetual diet.”