In the Kingdom of Men
Reviewed by Jay Trachtenberg, Fri., June 15, 2012
Maps to the Middle East
In the Kingdom of Menby Kim Barnes
Knopf, 336 pp., $24.95
Seldom has a book drawn me into its clutches as quickly as this one did. By the second sentence I was hooked on the first person account of Virginia Mae Mitchell, who, when we first meet her, is a school-aged orphan being raised by her severe, Pentecostal grandfather in a decrepit shack on a dirt-poor farm outside of Shawnee, Okla. With a compelling narrative that never flags, we are quickly transported from the dusty, red clay plains to the seemingly infinite desert sandscapes of Saudi Arabia, where Gin's husband, a former hometown basketball star named Mason McPhee, has been transferred by the American oil company for whom he works.
Gin's transformation from red-dirt, barefoot Oklahoman to marble floors and a houseboy may not change who she is but her new environs open her mind to a world of possibilities. She quickly discovers, however, that in reality women are still confined by the strict roles prescribed to them within both the culture of this late 1960s American community abroad and by the rigid tribal mores that have sustained Arabia for millennia. Her attempts at strong-willed self-actualization cause trouble in her marriage and friction within strict oil company policies. While Gin's personal struggles are the crux of the book, they are only one aspect of a multilayered tale of intrigue and suspense that addresses universal gender issues, East/West relationships, class status, racial oppression, and, not surprisingly, greed and corruption within the politics of oil.
This third novel by the award-winning Kim Barnes, a Pulitzer Prize finalist in 1997, draws an intriguing cast of largely well-defined characters. While members of the sheltered American community are sometimes depicted in a manner that borders on the stereotypic, far more interesting nuances are given to more exotic characters, like the family's Bedouin driver, their East Indian houseboy, and an Italian rogue photographer. The author is particularly adept at providing a palpable sense of place. From the waves of numbing heat and the vastness of the shimmering desert to blinding sandstorms, Biblical locust invasions, and the insidious, stifling boredom found within the confines of Mad Men-era Americana in the midst of an alien culture, Barnes makes the city of Abqaiq come alive.