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Original Sins, Arabian Nights
BOOK REVIEW: In the Kingdom of Men by Kim Barnes
“In the Kingdom of Men” is a novel with a lot of promise and a setting you might not have read much about: Saudi Arabia in the 1960s. But the story actually begins in the United States. The main character, Virginia Mae Mitchell (Ginny Mae or Gin for short), loses her parents at a young age and grows up under the harsh hand of her religious grandfather.
Right off the bat we know that Gin, living in “red dirt” Shawnee, Oklahoma, hasn’t caught many breaks in life. Her grandfather, a Methodist preacher, forbids Gin to wear makeup, cut her hair or play basketball, because of the uniforms, “The woman shall not wear that which Pertaineth unto a man, neither shall a man put on a woman’s garment: for all that do as are an abomination unto the Lord thy God!”
Gin grows up in the stifling shadow of her grandfather’s religion, noting the limitations placed on her because she’s female. Her grandfather’s congregation consists of black and white believers, something fairly rare for Shawnee in the 1960s. Gin notes that in her grandfather’s church, different races were welome but women were under-valued. Gin describes the post-service meal:
“Your color didn’t matter when it came to who was served and where, but whether you were male or female did. The men were fed where they sat, their wives fixing their plates before their own, wise to their husband’s predilections. … Only after the men and the children were served did the women eat: bread heels, chicken backs, the wateriest remains of corn pudding.”
This sharp awareness of her place, and her instinctive resistance to it, leads Gin to rebel and push back against her grandfather’s edicts, however secretly. She tells him she’s delivering cookies to a sick neighbor, but instead takes a long walk and eats them herself. She joins the girls’ basketball team, until her grandfather discovers her ruse and beats her.
Though Gin feels that she can’t possibly be as naturally sinful and open to ruin as her grandfather’s admonitions suggest, she always carries a speck of doubt about her actions. She finds it hard to forget his harsh words, though erroneous and illogical, throughout her life. This sense of inferiority, tied into being a woman, stays with Gin as she meets and marries hometown football star Mason McPhee, and moves with him to Saudi Arabia. Gin’s perception of this inequality continues to be a theme throughout the story.
Mason accepts a position with The Arabian American Oil Company, and he and Gin discover that their new life is one of ease and riches. The company grants them a fully furnished, marble-floored mansion in a gated compound. Their servant, Yash, cooks decadent meals and does all the cleaning, leaving Gin to be a woman of leisure. She’s free to play cards with the other wives, get beauty treatments and sip spiked cans of Pepsi by the poolside (alcohol is illegal in the country, but within the company’s compound, it’s furtively imbibed).
Unfortunately, it’s when the McPhees settle into compound life that the novel starts to become less believable. Gin befriends a spirited and opinionated oil company wife named Ruthie Doucet. Ruthie, a Jewish New Yorker married to a fast-talking Cajun man, seems a little one-dimensional. She’s the older, more opinionated and more experienced friend who shows Gin where to obtain booze and pierces Gin’s ears. She’s a transparent catalyst for Gin’s character development, rather than a character in her own right.
Mason, though a central character, never appears fully etched. He also becomes suddenly, passionately involved in a plot to uncover corruption at his company halfway through the novel, to the point where he risks his own life and job security. From there, his marriage with Gin grows fractious, and it all happens too suddenly to feel genuine.
Gin remains the only fully realized character, yet many of her actions go unexplained. She becomes infatuated with a Bedouin man named Abdullah, and even taunts her husband about an affair with him. But when Abdullah and Gin remain nothing more than acquaintances, the whole dalliance seems kind of pointless.
In contrast, one stronger aspect of the novel is the friendship between Yash, the servant, and Gin. Though perhaps somewhat clichéd (Yash acts as a long-suffering and wise elder, while Gin seems to assume the role of a whiney teen in their conversations), interesting ideas come to light in their interactions.
In keeping with the quasi-feminist theme, Yash compares Gin to biblical Eve: “Immortal and wise, your Bible says, ‘as one of us.’ That is why Eve was banished, you see — not because of her error but because of God’s fear. She is your heroine. … Remember that strength does not come from physical capacity but from an indomitable will.”
By the end of the novel, we know much more about Yash than we do about Mason, perhaps in keeping with Gin’s shift of energies from her old life in Shawnee to her new one in Saudi Arabia.
“In the Kingdom of Men” starts as a promising work of literary fiction. But just when the story should begin to pick up, it loses steam and veers into trite sentiment. And ultimately, the lyrical prose and intriguing premise can’t save the flagging plot.
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