I try to read one contemporary novel a week, but often curl up with “old” books instead: classics, out-or-print science fiction, or a middlebrow novel by Nancy Hale. And then I don’t look up for days and forget about the new books piled on my floor.
This summer, however, I’ve tackled several new books and enjoyed them. Either better books are being published, or my new system of skipping reviews and picking up what looks interesting is more stimulating. I am reading what I call “Tier-Two” novels instead of “Tier-One”: in other words, books by writers I don’t know instead of the latest by Richard Ford, Toni Morrison, Peter Carey, and Anne Tyler (which I’ll get to eventually).
I just finished Kim Barnes’s In the Kingdom of Men. It is compelling and well-written, if uneven: it’s Carson McCullers’ Frankie in Member of the Wedding meets Ginny Babcock in Lisa Alther’s Kinflicks meets Real Housewives of Saudi Arabia. The narrator, Gin, a fundamentalist minister’s granddaughter raised in poverty in Oklahoma, is one of those likable, smart, passionate characters we like to spend time with. But if you thought you’d like to grow up and be the wife of an oil man in Saudi Arabia in 1967, think again.
From the beginning of the novel, Gin has trouble with domineering men. She loves to read as a child, but it is forbidden by her grandfather. A kind teacher allows Gin to sit and read on her first day while the other children do arithmetic because she was mocked for being brought to school by her grandfather on a mule. Gin gets hooked on books.
From that point on, books became my solace, my escape. I brought them home from the library, hid them from the eyes of my grandfather, who believed that only the word of God had a place in his house, that stories outside of the scripture might lead me astray.”
Gin is a strong character, whipped by her grandfather for sneaking out to chorus and social events, but she continues to go out.
Then she meets charming Mason, a college student, and when she gets pregnant, he insists on marrying her and drops out of college. She is thrilled to leave Shawnee, but then the fetus dies inside her, and she is shattered. After working for an oil company in Texas, Mason takes a job in Saudi Arabia, where they are required to live in an American compound.
The portrayal of American and Arab oil politics is grueling and realistic. It’s a quick education for Gin in chauvinism, sexism, and racism. Women aren’t allowed to leave the compound without their husband’s permission, though Gin soon finds her way around that. Books are censored: her copy of Gone with the Wind is confiscated at customs, but she manages to pick up a censored edition of Dumas’ The Count of Monte Cristo at a store. Her Indian houseboy, Yash, and the Bedu driver, Abdullah, are well-educated but terribly oppressed. Both men must work at jobs well beneath their potential, because they understand Arabian politics and culture. Yash keeps referring to “the education of Mrs. Gin” as she is constantly censured for breaking rules. And Abdullah, a former engineer who had attempted to intervene on behalf of Arab oil workers, has problems that she cannot understand.
Gin’s friend, Ruthie, a Jewish rebel who does not fit in with the other wives, teaches her to lighten up: they leave the compound illicitly, do a lot of shopping in town, wear bikinis, and paint their toenails. Ruthie gets Gin a job working for a small American paper.
But Gin’s metamorphosis from an intense and bewildered housewife to social butterfly is a little jarring. And then a little too suddenly she begins to understand oppression. She starts to take photographs of things she is not supposed to see. Her husband gets involved in whistleblower politics, trying to improve safety for Arab workers. They don’t understand what they’re up against. And it is this American innocence abroad that is Jamesian and compelling.
It’s not a simple book, though it sometimes seems simple. Barnes did an enormous amount of research, and her list of sources goes on for pages and pages.
My only real criticism is that the narrative is too straightforward. It begins with Gin’s looking back at the past, and then proceeds absolutely chronolgocially. I think it might have been more interesting if it were broken up a little. Still, it is a very enjoyable, well-written novel.