The paperback of In the Kingdom of Men just came out this week, so I think it's about time I posted my review of the novel by my professor and major advisor.
In the Kingdom of Men by Kim Barnes
Gin is a young woman in the sixties growing up in the backwoods of Oklahoma under an austere and severely religious grandfather. She makes a bid for freedom by marrying handsome college boy Mason McPhee. Together they go to Saudi Arabia where Mason works on an oil rig and Gin must adjust to marble floors and servants, luxury within the strictly regulated confines of a gated compound. Gin must both adjust to riches and privilege as well as rules based on a racial and sexual hierarchy—Bedouins, Indian houseboys, white wives. And Gin must confront the secret vice and scandal of the Arabian American oil company, a secret that may cost Mason his life.
I'm ambivalent about this book. In some ways I really enjoyed it and thought it was very good writing, but in other ways I wish it could have been better and it didn't meet my expectations.
The beginning is fantastic. Gin growing up in the backwoods of Oklahoma with an austere grandfather were some of the best parts.
I feel like this book can't decide whether it's character driven or plot driven. For me, a book is best when it balances both. In the Kingdom of Men didn't balance the two very well for me. The middle of the book felt plot-driven, but the ending didn't live up to my expectations for a plot-driven work. I was disappointed with the ending until I reworked my expectations for something more existential and character driven. But if this were that sort of book, then I wanted the middle to set me up for that. I felt like the book didn't reveal it's theme until the last page, and the theme couldn't fully resonate with me because it hadn't been built up to, I hadn't seen enough hints of it throughout.
Gin is a hard-headed independent woman. But for all that, she has very little agency throughout the book. I thought in the ending she would claim her agency, but this turned out to be the story of a woman who has life happen to her. This is the story of, for all Gin struggles for independence, a woman who's life is dictated by the external and by other people's choices. There are times when she discusses with Yash (her houseboy) how hard it is to be a woman in a man's world (hey, just clue into the title), but I was still expecting our heroine to do something, to achieve something or change something. So maybe this isn't the traditional story of the hero/heroine saves the day, nor the story of a woman becoming a mature adult through self-awareness, agency, and sovereignty. Maybe this is a fiercely realistic story about how no matter how hard you try you can't often change things. Maybe this is the story of you only think you're in charge of your life. Those are depressing but valid topics, and the epilogue is written thoughtfully and beautifully enough to carry those ideas. But the rest of the book didn't feel like it was that sort of book. The prologue and epilogue almost feel like different books than the whole middle of the book. Or maybe I should says, the parts that take place in Saudi Arabia feel like a different story from the parts that take place in Oklahoma and Rome.
Beautiful writing, interesting and intriguing characters, but I would have liked a little more cohesiveness in plot and theme.