Set in Saudi Arabia in 1967, In the Kingdom of Men explores the life led by “Aramco wives” – the women of the oil engineers, managers and drillers who were working and living on Aramco owned oil platforms and towns. Kim Barnes has taken the Kingdom of the title to mean both the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia – a fiercely patriarchal society, where women are hidden away, dressed modestly and mostly invisibly – and the Kingdom of American oil towns, which are enclaves isolated from the local populace where women are free to do and wear anything they please, as long as they stay within the fence.
The story follows the life of Gin McPhee, who married her high school sweetheart Mason in order to escape from her own Kingdom – one in which her grandfather ruled with an excess of Puritan piety. In a burst of rebellion Gin escapes and elopes and turns her back on Shawnee, Oklahoma and all it holds. Mason, while dreaming of going to university, gets a succession of labour jobs in Texas until finding a position with Aramco which puts him and his brand-new wife onto a plane to Saudi Arabia and a whole new life.
In the American oil town the behaviours that the wives have range from allowed to disallowed to encouraged or ignored – in many cases it’s a combination of all four. The husbands are often on platforms or rigs, for weeks or months at a stretch and when they return home, as one wife puts it, all they want is food, sex and sleep. Gin adjusts to this strange new Kingdom and its rules, the written ones and the unwritten ones, and eventually learns enough to start bending them. Kim Barnes’ descriptions are detailed and thorough, and capture the surrealism of having these very American enclaves within a very Arabian landscape.
She starts a casual, then not so casual, friendship with their driver Abdullah, a Bedouin who lives in a tent outside their enclave with his mother and sister, and her baby daughter. Abdullah’s sister is married to Alireza, who is essentially the local crime lord, and refuses to return to his home. Despite the language barrier, Gin and Abdullah’s sister might have become friends if fate hadn’t intervened. For Mason has been investigating some accounting discrepancies at Aramco and also supporting the local peoples’ push for better wages and conditions, and in doing so has stepped on a number of toes. The impact of his investigation has far-reaching consequences which reach all the way outside the tents, outside the enclave, outside Aramco, and even outside Saudi Arabia.
Available now: Random House RRP$29.95