Book set in SAUDI ARABIA – a luminous portrait of life in the desert

  • Book: In the Kingdom of Men
  • Location: Abqaiq, Saudi Arabia
  • Author: Kim Barnes

Review Author: tripfiction



1960s Saudi Arabia. Author Kim Barnes has phenomenally captured the feel of the Kingdom of that period, all set in the wider context of the political world stage. Women still haven’t found a voice, even more so in the artificial life that is the compound of ex-pat life. This is a woman’s life of drinks parties, filling time, secret drinnking and interminable boredom. But it’s not enough for Mrs Gin McPhee.

Gin comes from a very poor background in Oklahoma and through her marriage to Mason her horizons broaden. They move to the Aramco processing facility in Abqaiq, Saudi Arabia (the plant and location are for real) and it is here she eventually finds her calling as a photographer. Although she clearly has talent, she is thwarted by censorship, which photos can and can’t be published, and indeed some photos could ultimately lead to deportation. It is a risky business. Life is regulated for foreigners and particularly foreign women. Her husband spends many days away at the facility and so she socialises with other American women, and builds a friendship with one woman in particular, Ruthie, who shows her the ropes. She also builds relationships with her houseboy Yash, her husband’s driver and an Italian photographer in an attempt to manage her bored frustration. These relationships are intriguing, although they seem to develop too easily and too quickly in this artificial world in the desert.

The novel starts like an airplane landing – it really hits the tarmac running – and then gradually taxis its way along the runway to its end, an ultimately rather unfulfilling conclusion.

?It is nevertheless rich in detail about life in the country and about ex-pat life in particular, some of which still holds true today. Nothing can sum up how the locale is portrayed like the words of the author herself on her blog: Set against the gorgeously etched landscape of a country on the cusp of enormous change, In the Kingdom of Men abounds with sandstorms and locust swarms, shrimp pedlars, pearl divers, and Bedouin caravans – a luminous portrait of life in the desert.

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