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Originally published Sunday, June 3, 2012 at 5:01 AM

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Book review

'In the Kingdom of Men': testing the boundaries of an oil worker stronghold

Idaho author Kim Barnes' new novel "In the Kingdom of Men" tells what happens when a spirited young woman from a hardscrabble background moves with her husband to an oil business compound in Saudi Arabia in the 1960s. Barnes appears this week at Village Books in Bellingham and at Seattle's Elliott Bay Book Co.

Special to The Seattle Times

Author appearance

Kim Barnes

The author of "In the Kingdom of Men" will appear at 7 p.m. Wednesday at Village Books in Bellingham (360-671-2626 or www.villagebooks.com) and at 7 p.m. Thursday at Seattle's Elliott Bay Book Co.; free (206-624-6600 or www.elliottbaybook.com).
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It should be an interesting story. This is my confession. I have not read the book... MORE

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'In the Kingdom of Men'

by Kim Barnes

Knopf, 322 pp., $24.95

In the 1960s, the Arabian American Oil Company, the big boy in the international oil business, created gated compounds for its American workers in Saudi Arabia, or more accurately, for the workers' wives and families whose husbands went off to work on oil rigs.

A portrait of life inside the gates in 1967, drawn with skill and filled with evocative period detail by novelist Kim Barnes, depicts a sort of Saudi Barbie Dream House. The narrator is young bride Virginia "Gin" McPhee, a transplanted Okie and heroine in the enticing tradition of plucky outsiders who find themselves in a new society with complex social rules and secrets.

When Gin and husband Mason land in Dhahran, then drive on to the Aramco stronghold in the city of Abqaiq, she has no idea what to expect. Nothing in her dirt-poor childhood prepared her for this well-funded life of leisure — cocktails and cigarettes by the pool, flirty parties when the men come home, shopping, and house servants to handle every household task. Yet her bleak upbringing has prepared Gin for the misogynist culture (or, cultures, depending on one's view of 1960s America) that seeks to seal her inside this pocket of plenty.

During an orientation for new arrivals, Gin listens to the "familiar list of sins: dancing, gambling, drinking," and the warning that it is "best to look like you're going to church" when venturing out to take the company shuttle on carefully limited shopping expeditions. She follows the rules, but within days small acts of rebellion begin. She makes friends with men around her — something forbidden the native women and frowned upon for visitors. A driver, Abdullah, and her well-educated, middle-age "houseboy," Yash, live by Bedu codes of honor that fascinate her. (English speakers usually say "Bedouin.")

"In the Kingdom of Men" is a mystery, opening with the discovery of a murdered local woman, then backtracking to explain how Gin — and more darkly, Mason — are connected to the death. The plot is unfurled like a rich carpet, rolling out over a vast space before it gently settles and fills every corner. Barnes, a writing professor at the University of Idaho, gets more motion and feeling into a deceptively plain paragraph than many novelists can cram into a chapter. She ensures that Gin's evolution is authentic, a wary, quiet observer and survivor who plumbs the depths of her new world with heart and courage. The women who populate the novel are all heroic in their various ways, a wonderful juxtaposition alongside this man's world built by oil money.

Gin's first guide is her new friend Ruthie, another Aramco wife whose irreverent charm gives Gin the confidence to buy a bikini, pierce her ears, get a sophisticated haircut, and take the lead for the first time in bed with Mason. Soon Gin's world is shaken up by a love affair — with a camera. She starts by snapping photos to accompany her feature stories on bridge games and the like for a small local newspaper. She becomes bolder, and spends more time roaming, waiting and watching life outside the compound. Gin can hardly wait to get her prints back: "Framed, contained, the desert became more knowledgeable, it variegations and movement captured in split-second shots that I studied like the pages of a primer."

The ending of this book folds together victory and sadness — it may remind some readers of Marilyn French's "The Women's Room," as it did me. A woman discovers her gifts — and the gods exact their price.

Kimberly Marlowe Hartnett is a writer living in Portland. She blogs at www.TypeLikeTheWind.com.

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