In the Kingdom of Men

Written by Kim Barnes
Review by Sarah Cuthbertson

Gin McPhee, an orphan raised in poverty by her strict Methodist grandfather, hastily weds her sweetheart Mason on finding herself pregnant. She loses the baby and Mason his chance of university. In search of a fresh start, Mason takes a job in the Saudi Arabian oilfields of the 1960s, and soon Gin is living a life she never dreamed of: a luxurious house in a gated compound, a houseboy, and for entertainment a round of cocktails, dinner parties and a little light flirting. But soon this lifestyle palls. Mason is often away on the rigs, her marriage is changing, and most of the other company wives bore her. Discontented, she asks questions and makes discoveries, leading her to suspect that the wealth is paid for by corruption and the exploitation of Arab workers. She fears Mason may be implicated. Why, she wonders, did the previous occupants of their house leave so suddenly? And who killed the young Bedouin woman washed up on the beach?

This is much more than a thriller. It’s about what happens to a marriage thrust into an alien setting, to people of two different cultures destined to mutual misunderstanding, and above all to a spirited young woman who breaks the rules. The novel is all the more rewarding for taking its time. We get a vivid feeling for Gin’s blighted youth, her selfhood crushed by a bigoted guardian, and for her hope that her life as a company wife in a foreign land might allow her to be herself. But it proves to be just another form of oppression. Then, seeking that elusive freedom out in the desert, she finds a form of female subjugation far worse than she could imagine. For all her travelling, she’s never really left the kingdom of men.