These days I’m writing about Thirty Women Novelists You Should Know. In alphabetical order, today is #2: Kim Barnes.
Turns out I didn’t discover her
Like many writers I believe I’ve discovered, Kim Barnes had a distinguished writing career long before I stumbled upon her work. For instance, her first memoir was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize. I’ve read only one of her three novels, but loved it enough to know I want to read more of her books – and to introduce other readers to her if I can.
In the Kingdom of Men is about a young couple from Pawnee, Oklahoma who move to Saudi Arabia in the 1960s so the husband can work for an American oil company. The wife, who grew up in poverty under a strict Pentecostal religion, suddenly has an Indian houseboy and a Bedouin driver, and nothing to do but chafe under the familiar restrictions the Saudis place on women. The novel does a wonderful job of creating characters and exploring the many political, racial and gender issues at play in the burgeoning oil partnership between the U.S. and the Saudis.
We all live in a dangerous neighborhood
I was first drawn to the book by its title, since I believe we are all living in the kingdom of men and it’s a dangerous neighborhood. The novel captured me with its vibrant depiction of the American oil companies’ frantic efforts to domesticate the Saudi landscape and people, as well as the book’s examination of the dangers – and temptations – of empire.
The main character, Gin, is complicated and compelling, always probing to find the limits of her freedom. As a reader you fear for her, cheer for her, and wish she could live in a less confining era. The novel brilliantly illuminates conflicts of culture – not only the tensions between the Saudis and the Americans who live in guarded compounds on their land, but the tensions between democracy and the rampaging capitalism of the oil companies. And I particularly loved how friendship served in the novel as both a means of redemption and insurrection.
I’m stealing this
On Barnes’ website, the discussion guide for In the Kingdom of Men concludes with this odd and thought-provoking question, which I am absolutely going to steal for my own discussion guide for Her Own Vietnam: “If you could save one life in this story, whose life would it be?”