From the Jacket
One August afternoon, on the shoreline of the Kamchatka peninsula at the northeastern edge of Russia, two girls–sisters, eight and eleven–go missing. In the ensuing weeks, then months, the police investigation turns up nothing. Echoes of the disappearance reverberate across a tightly woven community, with the fear and loss felt most deeply among its women. Taking us through a year in Kamchatka, DISAPPEARING EARTH enters with astonishing emotional acuity the worlds of a cast of richly drawn characters, all connected by the crime: a witness, a neighbor, a detective, a mother. We are transported to vistas of rugged beauty–densely wooded forests, open expanses of tundra, soaring volcanoes, and the glassy seas that border Japan and Alaska–and into a region as complex as it is alluring, where social and ethnic tensions have long simmered, and where outsiders are often the first to be accused.
DISAPPEARING EARTH was my first read of 2020 and I’d like to think I started on a high note. Phillips’ debut certainly garnered a decent amount of momentum during awards season as a finalist for the NBA for Fiction. Naturally, I was interested in the book behind the hype, and I went into it completely blind, which I think was a good choice in the long run.
DISAPPEARING EARTH is a slow-moving thriller, if such a thing even exists. It begins as two young girls sisters disappear on Russia’s secluded Kamchatka Peninsula, a stunningly beautiful setting in which volcanoes sit among the tundra, reindeer among the towns, and bears among the cities. From the beginning, the reader knows a man kidnapped the girls and conned them into his car, but the townspeople are unaware and an investigation begins. From there, Phillips tells the story of Kamchatka through it people; DISAPPEARING EARTH is less a mystery of the two girls’ disappearance and more the stories of their neighbors in the aftermath.
Over the course of a year, the women of Kamchatka tell their stories, and at times I almost forgot about the missing girls and thought I was reading a short story collection about different women living in the same place. In a sense, each woman feels stuck in their lives–their marriages, their relationships, their homes–and so it is ironic that a story of two missing girls, girls who are unwillingly stolen from their lives and their mother, is told by women who wish they could disappear from their own lives.
“Everyone looked better at a distance. Everyone sounded sweetest when you did not have to hear them talk too long.”
Unfortunately, I did have an issue with the novel’s pacing: the majority of the book is much too slow, then the ending comes together all too quickly and cleanly. Still, it was very satisfying to see the characters start to connect and everything start making sense. And the last chapter… left me speechless. Pick up DISAPPEARING EARTH when you’re looking for a slow-paced, thoughtful, and well-written mystery.
“An Interview with Julia Phillips” by Jennifer Wilson, The Paris Review
“A Debut Novel Remixes the Trope of the Missing Girl” by Laura Miller, The New Yorker