My friends who are women writers have a running joke about the arm-or-leg syndrome; invariably, it seems, their covers feature some part of a woman’s body — but not the whole body, almost never the whole body. “You got a leg?” They’ll say. Or: “Oh, you got TWO legs. That’s terrific.” And so it goes.
It’s obviously a disservice to start talking about Kim Barnes’ spellbinding new novel with a discussion of its cover, but it’s something that I’m interested in, and — if you haven’t noticed — this isn’t a venue for the most rigorously formal book criticism of the 21st century. (I did just have a piece in the Sunday New York Times Book Review that was certainly more traditional — a review of G. Willow Wilson’s, “Alif the Unseen.”)
I use this space to discuss books that have fallen into my life (Year of the Gadfly, The Green Shore), much the way this one did. Laura Delaney at Rediscovered Books in Boise recommended it to me. She said it would be an interesting companion to my novel — which it was, in many ways. But I have to say I’m flattered by the comparison, having just devoured the book, as the antidote to the crazed pandemonium that was the tour through Montana and Idaho. I returned home from my five Montana and Idaho dates in a bit of a funk — it was difficult to feel that I was getting momentum, at all, on the book — which is something I do now feel, but couldn’t two weeks ago.
Anyhow — the premise of Barnes’ novel is straightforward: A girl from a tiny town in Oklahoma gets taken to Saudi Arabia by her husband’s job in the oil industry. What she discovers there, paradoxically, is a life-altering freedom, as her presence in the culture as a moneyed outsider (especially one involved with the oil industry) gives her a freedom that she could never have had in her extremely religious, small Oklahoma town. This also leads, fairly directly, to the book’s main tragedy.
From the very first line (which I won’t quote here, but which you will see as soon as you pick up the book), the prose is addictive. Ian McEwan has said that narrative tension depends upon a writer successfully concealing information; Barnes’ novel is animated by a core darkness, a violent event that it relentlessly circles towards, pulling you further and further into the narrative.
Barnes writes: “Let me tell it from the beginning, then, remember the truths of my own story so that I might better bear witness to hers, trace the threads to that place where our lives intertwined — one of us birthed to iron-steeped clay, the other to fallow sand, each of us brought to this place by men born of oil.”
Beautiful prose, throughout.
It was nice to read while I had a respite between tour events — but now — back out on the road. (And there are more stories and images from the road, forthcoming!)