Catch up on shows with The Coast On Demand
Friday, September 07, 2012 12:00 PM
On the heels of Joanne Harris’ Peaches for Monsieur le Cure, the feminist themes of Kim Barnes’ third novel In the Kingdom of Men had me wondering if there was some larger sociocultural hot topic prompting women novelists to examine the plight of their sex. The former novel exposes the view of some orthodox Muslims that women bear responsibility for rape, while Barnes moves her heroine from rural, red-dirt Oklahoma to 1960s Saudi Arabia and finds her navigation of both worlds governed by the whims of men.
Perhaps there is no compelling reason beyond the material offered by the age-old male-female conflict. Whether writ large or small (and Betty Friedan, for one, didn’t see a difference between the personal and political), it never ceases to offer up drama and pathos, and the stakes are high. Love, as Barnes shows us, can save lives, but still not be enough.
That Barnes is also a memoirist and poet is evident in the kaleidoscopic constant motion of her protagonist, Virginia Mae Mitchell. She is flighty, in the best sense, unable to hold on for very long even to her own name; as a pregnant teenager cast out by her repressed, pious grandfather, ‘Sister Gin’ becomes Mrs Mason McPhee.
Steeped as she is in the “hushed stories of hard births and tumorous wombs” of the women around her, the reader anticipates a hard road for Gin – abandonment, poverty, life lessons hard-learned.
But there is nothing ordinary about Gin’s journey, and her travails elicit a well of steeliness from which she will draw time and again. Exchanging her girlish transgressions – going to the drugstore to listen to jukebox Elvis and Roy Orbison being roughly on par with premarital sex – for the life of a stay-at-home wife, she and Mason migrate south to Houston and an oil-drilling job.
From there, it’s Saudi Arabia and the booming expatriate community supported by Aramco and other now-obsolete names behind the construction of the American empire. Companies, then as now, need a single-minded proposition, and Aramco’s is a cool two million barrels of oil a day.
Shariah law rules, but a blind eye is turned to the Westerners, as long as the wives, who have little to do but shop and gossip, remain within the leeway allowed them. Many customs are anathema to those raised with relative cultural freedom; the woman who spends her entire life in one house, not leaving even for groceries, has an exalted status, for her isolation is proof to the community that all her needs have been met.
While Gin’s path, unpredictable and courageous, is compelling enough, it is Barnes’ dispassionate construction of her environment that sticks in the mind, supported as it is by the author’s painstaking research. Even as one character acknowledges the “corporate colonization” that defines the Arab-American relationship, another ruminates: “No Arab loves the desert. There is nothing in the desert, and what man needs nothing?”
Where Americans see limitless black gold and possibility, the land’s natives, usurped and undermined, can do little but resign themselves to their impotence. In refusing to align herself with either conqueror or vanquished, Gin McPhee achieves an improbable liberty.
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