336pp, paperback, £12.99
Reviewed by Caroline Sanderson
‘“Mad Men” meets Revolutionary Road’ is the publisher’s arresting description of this third novel by US academic and writer Kim Barnes. There are flickers of both those all-American tales, but the comparisons are essentially dud, since most of the action purposely takes place not in the land of the free but in the deserts of Saudi Arabia. If we must go compare, a nod in the direction of Hilary Mantel’s creepy 1988 novel Eight Months on Ghazzah Street seems much more appropriate.
Raised by her stringent Methodist minister grandfather in circumstances so humble she filches soft toilet paper from school, head-in-the-clouds Oklahoma orphan Gin gets pregnant by decent local lad Mason McPhee who proceeds to make an honest woman of her. When Gin loses her baby and with him the ability to have another child, a ‘good place to start over’ is required and Mason takes a job at the Arabian American Oil Company in Saudi. His girl from Shawnee must learn fast to be a sophisticated company wife; and one expected to thrill to private clubs, dressing for dinner, and breakfast fixed for her each morning by her Indian houseboy. Gin is soon bored rigid with the crass gossip and covert cocktails which punctuate daily life, and her attention is drawn to the real Arab lives and turbulent events unfolding beyond the compound fence. What she discovers in the desert – endlessly shifting seas of sand, a majestic Arab mare, an enigmatic Bedouin family – stirs her soul.
I found plenty to admire in this novel. I loved the unexpected but neat parallels which Barnes draws between the demands of the hellfire Christianity of the American dust bowl and the strict observances enshrined in sharia law. The ingénue Gin is unfit in so many ways for the fast life of a US company wife (she thinks dirty sex is when you do it standing up against the kitchen worktop). Yet she feels right at home in a society where gambling, drinking and the music of the Beatles are forbidden, but spirited horses are prized. The novel also deftly explores the relative freedoms of US and Saudi women; and the lives of the immigrant workers – Somali, Etritrean, Syrian, Indian – brought in to service the needs of the US oil execs. There are memorable characters: the outrageous but kind Ruthie, who instructs Gin in the ways of an Aramco wife; story-telling Yash, the McPhee’s houseboy who cooks like a dream in the wake of the family tragedy he has left behind him in India; Abdullah, the Bedouin driver to whom Gin finds herself drawn. In a particularly alluring scene, Gin and Ruthie visit Abdullah’s Bedouin tent where the hospitality is as potent as the coffee. Abdullah’s mother Fatima works her loom, and Gin has a vision of her long-dead grandmother pinning and stitching calico fragments into patchwork quilts.
The cross-cultural yarn is so absorbingly woven that it comes as something of a jolt when the novel turns into a thriller two-thirds of the way in, with the eruption of the nine-day war between Israel and its Arab neighbours, and a growing stench of oily corruption within Aramco. As Mason goes gung-ho, the final ninety pages of the novel are certainly action-packed, but there’s nothing to compare with the delicious stealing menace of Ghazzah Street. In any case, I found myself longing to return to the company of the women, and even to the stifling tedium of the compound, within which a thousand and one intrigues and many human truths were being slowly – and very satisfyingly – unveiled. That was the thrilling bit.