Book Review: Summer Fiction

Hackers, heretics, and spies, oh my

Summer Fiction

Maps to the Middle East

In the Kingdom of Men

by 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.

A note to readers: Bold and uncensored, The Austin Chronicle has been Austin’s independent news source for almost 40 years, expressing the community’s political and environmental concerns and supporting its active cultural scene. Now more than ever, we need your support to continue supplying Austin with independent, free press. If real news is important to you, please consider making a donation of $5, $10 or whatever you can afford, to help keep our journalism on stands.

Support the Chronicle  

More Book Reviews
<i>Presidio</i> by Randy Kennedy
Presidio by Randy Kennedy
For his debut novel, Kennedy creates a road story that portrays the harsh West Texas terrain beautifully and fills it with sympathetic characters.

Jay Trachtenberg, Sept. 14, 2018

Hunting the Golden State Killer in <i>I'll Be Gone in the Dark</i>
Hunting the Golden State Killer in I'll Be Gone in the Dark
How Michelle McNamara tracked a killer before her untimely death

Jonelle Seitz, July 20, 2018

More by Jay Trachtenberg
Texas Platters
Rosie Flores
Simple Case of the Blues (Record Review)

March 22, 2019

Top Books of 2018 for American Road Tripping
Top Books of 2018 for American Road Tripping
Two novels set on the open road and two accounts of life in Trump's White House all made for journeys deep into America today

Dec. 28, 2018


summer fiction, In the Kingdom of Men, Kim Barnes

One click gets you all the newsletters listed below

Breaking news, arts coverage, and daily events

Can't keep up with happenings around town? We can help.

Austin's queerest news and events

Updates for SXSW 2019

All questions answered (satisfaction not guaranteed)

Information is power. Support the free press, so we can support Austin.   Support the Chronicle