The BookBrowse Review

Published May 15, 2019

ISSN: 1930-0018

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Disappearing Earth
Disappearing Earth
by Julia Phillips

Hardcover (14 May 2019), 272 pages.
Publisher: Knopf
ISBN-13: 9780525520412
BookBrowse:
Critics:
  

Spellbinding, moving - evoking a fascinating region on the other side of the world - this suspenseful and haunting story announces the debut of a profoundly gifted writer.

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.

In a story as propulsive as it is emotionally engaging, and through a young writer's virtuosic feat of empathy and imagination, this powerful novel brings us to a new understanding of the intricate bonds of family and community, in a Russia unlike any we have seen before.

October

"We forgot the tent," Max said, turning to Katya. The beam of her flashlight flattened his features. His face was a white mask of distress. The forest around them was black, because they'd left Petropavlovsk so late—his last-minute packing, his bad directions. His fault.

In the harsh light, he was nearly not beautiful anymore. Cheekbones erased, chin cleft illuminated, lips parted, he looked wide-eyed into the glare. Katya and Max had been together since August and as of September were officially in love. Yet the tent. Disgust rippled through her. "You're not serious," she said. She caught the tail of her repulsion before it passed; she had to hold on to it, a snake in the hand, otherwise she would forgive him too soon.

"It's not here."

Katya handed him the flashlight and started to dig through the trunk. Shadows lengthened and contracted against their things: sacks of food, sleeping bags, two foam mats. A folded tarp to line the tent floor. Loose towels for the hot springs, a couple folding chairs, rolled trash bags that unraveled as she shoved them. Katya should have packed the car herself, instead of watching his body flex in the rear-view mirror this evening. Pots clanked somewhere deep in the mess.

"Max!" she said. "How!"

"We can sleep outside," he said. "It's not that cold." She stared back at his outline above the circle of light. "We can sleep in the car," he said.

"Magnificent." We forgot, he said, we, as if they together kept one tent in one closet of one shared home. As if they jointly made these mishaps. As if she had not needed to leave the port early this afternoon, drive twenty minutes south through the city to shower and change at her own place, drive thirty-five minutes north to get to his apartment complex on time, then wait eighteen long minutes in his parking lot for him to come out.

He'd told her earlier in the week he would bring his tent. His car, a dinky Nissan, didn't have four-wheel drive, so they were taking hers, and he had loaded such a stack of stuff into the trunk—enough to merit a second run up to his apartment, a return trip with his arms full—that Katya told herself he had it handled. Instead of checking she tuned her car radio to local news of a shop robbery, an approaching cyclone, another call for those two little girls. She gripped her steering wheel. Once Max finally climbed into the passenger seat, she said, "That's everything?"

Nodding, he leaned to kiss her. "Let's get going. Take me away," he said then. She checked the time (forty-one minutes late) and shifted into reverse.

Now they were going to spend the night in her mini SUV. Dependable as the Suzuki was, bringing them these four hours north of the city over roads that turned from asphalt to gravel to dirt, it made terrible sleeping quarters. Two doors, two narrow rows of seats, no legroom. The gearshift would separate them from each other. Neither of them would have space to lie down.

Katya sighed and Max's shoulders bowed in response. She wanted to touch those shoulders. "It's okay," she said. Her disgust slithered off to wait for his next error. "It's all right, bear cub, it happens. Would you gather us some wood?"

Once the flashlight was off bobbing between trees, Katya moved her car over the flattened patch of weeds where a tent was meant to be staked. The mistake had been hers in not asking earlier ... next time they'd do better. Max was simply the sort of person, like so many others, whom she had to supervise.

Soil shifted under her tires. She didn't turn the headlights back on. Slowly, her eyes were adjusting to the dark. She had visited these woods as a child, and though she must be seeing two decades of growth, the birch trees in the starlight looked to her exactly as they had when she was a girl: aged and grand and magical. The world outside had steadily warped, become less predictable and more dangerous, while spots like this were protected. Here, there was no radio news, no city stresses, no schedule to disrupt. The tent had served as the last opportunity for disappointment. There was no reason left to get worked up. Katya had to remember that.

Full Excerpt

Excerpted from Disappearing Earth by Julia Phillips. Copyright © 2019 by Julia Phillips. Excerpted by permission of Alfred A. Knopf, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

Two young girls vanish on an isolated Russian peninsula, triggering an unpredictable chain of events that impacts a cast of interwoven characters.

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On the remote peninsula of Kamchatka—tucked away on the far eastern corner of Russia and surrounded by vast seas and oceans—most people feel safe. But when two young sisters, Alyona and Sophia, vanish on a cool August afternoon, things change, shocking the small, interconnected Kamchatka community.

In 12 chapters, corresponding with the months of the year following the disappearance of the two girls, author Julia Phillips zooms in on a rotating set of characters who are impacted by the case, providing a panoramic view of the peninsula's people. Since each chapter inhabits the perspective of a different person, Disappearing Earth is far from a traditional thriller. The investigation and crime often take a backseat. Just as many people don't think twice about a crime featured on the nightly news, some characters view it only peripherally, in passing. For others, the case is a gravitational force, driving their entire lives off-kilter. This makes the mystery somewhat impressionistic, as details are revealed slowly, indirectly, unexpectedly, scattered throughout the chapters of the book and the lives of those in Kamchatka, until the story finally comes to a head.

Among the revolving characters are detectives, eye witnesses, mothers, victims, students, city workers, neighbors and friends. With transportive, immersive prose, Phillips synthesizes their world, creating something that is sharp and clear. Characters pop with "swollen cheeks, sun-bleached eyebrows, yellow hair that stuck up in back like the quills of a hedgehog." Places materialize with "steamed-up windows [that] blotted out any stars, so the night beyond looked flawlessly dark." These potent images sustain readers as characters pivot in and out of one another's storylines, making an immersive experience out of something that could be disorientating.

In addition to being well-executed and fitting for the storyline, Phillips' narrative structure enables her to delve into the complex, delicate and long-brewing sociocultural nuances of Kamchatka. In this post-Soviet country, tensions rise and fall between the immigrant, white, and Indigenous peoples (See Beyond the Book). Inhabitants of an ever-changing nation, these individuals struggle to find a balance between the conflicting values of traditional and progressive ways of life—in their families, in their sex lives, in their relationships and beyond. Characters are scattered across economic classes, too, providing insights into the burdens and opportunities that come with wealth or poverty. Phillips is able to tap into all of these varied nodes on culture and society that surface through her characters' plot lines, focusing most on the lives of women, for they feel the tragedy of the missing girls most deeply.

Phillips' 5-year residence in Russia on a Fullbright grant likely facilitated this culturally-sensitive, well-researched novel. Although Kamchatka has around 400,000 residents, the region's population density is one of the lowest in the world. It is foreign; it is a place few people will ever experience for themselves, due to extreme political and geographic isolation. Yet somehow, Phillips balances the familiar with the strange. This very specific place and very specific culture has some striking similarities to the rest of the world—political distrust, communication barriers, familial pressures and immigration disagreements. And the root of the story, the vanished Alyona and Sophia, reveals more about the universality of tragedy than what first meets the eye.

A truly impressive debut novel, Disappearing Earth is a must-read. Being relatively short, it begs for a re-read right after spinning through the final page. Striking a balance between immersive fiction and realistic contextual elements—in geographic accuracy, cultural attentiveness and more—there is something here for every reader. To learn more about Phillips' take on storytelling, listen to her conversation with Noah Finco on the podcast One Thing Led to Another.

Reviewed by Jamie Chornoby

Publishers Weekly (starred review)
This novel signals the arrival of a mighty talent.

Booklist (starred review)
In fresh and unpredictable scenes depicting broken friendships and failed marriages, strained family gatherings, drunken sauna parties, a camping trip, and rehearsals of a Native dance troupe, Phillips' spellbinding prose is saturated with sensuous nuance and emotional intensity as she subtly traces the shadows of Russia's past and illuminates today's daunting complexities of gender and identity, expectations and longing.

Kirkus Reviews (starred review)
An unusual, cleverly constructed thriller that is also a deep dive into the culture of a place many Americans have probably never heard of, illuminating issues of race, culture, sexual attraction, and the transition from the U.S.S.R. to post-Soviet Russia.

Author Blurb Tayari Jones, author of An American Marriage
Julia Phillips is at once a careful cartographer and gorgeous storyteller. Written with passion and patience, this is the story of a people and the land that shapes them. The mystery of the missing girls burns at the center of this astonishing debut, and the complexity of ethnicity, gender, hearth and kin illuminates this question and many more.

Author Blurb Gary Shteyngart
A genuine masterpiece, but one that is easily consumed in a feverish stay-up-all-night bout of reading pleasure. It's as much a portrait of humanity as of a small Kamchatka community.

Author Blurb Jean Kwok, author of Girl in Translation
Brilliant, spectacular—a wonderful book. Julia Phillips' exquisite, detailed writing drew me in from the very first page of Disappearing Earth. I fell in love with each and every poignantly rendered character, even as I couldn't keep my eyes off the central mystery of the two missing girls. The novel is both a riveting page-turner and a gorgeous exploration of love, one that circles around a magnetic core of loss. It has lodged itself deep in my heart.

Author Blurb Simon Sebag-Montefiore, author of The Romanovs
Suspenseful, original and compelling, Disappearing Earth is a strange and haunting voyage into a strange and haunting world—the faraway Kamchatka in Russia's Far East, which is brought by this debut novelist to eerie, vibrant and unsettling life.

Author Blurb Christine Schutt, author of Pure Hollywood
Julia Phillips' novel is vividly real, but it reads at times like a suspenseful fairy tale. Here are portraits of different women with a shared yearning for autonomy, in a land inhospitable to it. Here, too, is a story in which, against all odds, they do not give up hope. Disappearing Earth is a brave, affecting accomplishment.

Author Blurb Lorraine Adams, author of Harbor
Disappearing Earth is a rare achievement: haunting and complex; intense yet subtle; sophisticated yet unputdownable; moving yet never sentimental; foreign yet somehow familiar. And it snaps shut at the end with dark poise. Julia Phillips possesses a unique talent, and I can't wait for her next book.

Author Blurb Suki Kim, author of Without You, There is No Us
This exquisite debut reads like a secret being whispered to your ears only. Julia Phillips so smoothly evokes the quiet rage, breathtaking tenderness and searing discomfort of a human connection.

Author Blurb Bill Cheng, author of Southern Cross the Dog
Julia Phillips writes in clean, sharp lines that belie an almost frightening depth, and a clarity of eye that renders a complex and gut-wrenching vision of the Kamchatka region and its people. More than once, I gawped at this book: there are no seams, no sentimentality, not a single untrue thought from start to finish. With Disappearing Earth, Phillips accomplishes in her first book what most writers can't glimpse in a lifetime.

Author Blurb Jim Shepard, author of The Book of Aron
Disappearing Earth is not only a viscerally wide-ranging introduction to the land and culture of the Kamchatka Peninsula, as well as a missing persons thriller—as beautifully written as it was, I still couldn't turn the pages fast enough—it's also a wrenching meditation on the agonies of those losses to which we never fully adjust. This is a dazzlingly impressive first novel.

Author Blurb Sloane Crosley, author of I Was Told There'd Be Cake
A feat of literary suspense. I felt like a wide-eyed kid reading Julia Phillips' Disappearing Earth. I could live in her portrayal of this remote part of the world forever.

Author Blurb Simon Winchester
I cannot speak too highly of Julia Phillips's thrilling, impeccably written and splendidly imagined story, set with rigorous attention to detail in one of the most volcanically dangerous and beautifully remote corners of the planet. An exciting beginning from an author whose literary future looks set to be stellar.

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The Indigenous People of Kamchatka, Russia

Valley of the Geysers in the Kamchatka PeninsulaThe remote Russian peninsula of Kamchatka, where Julia Phillips' debut novel Disappearing Earth takes place, is very isolated. It is located on the far east side of Russia, surrounded by the Sea of Okhotsk, the Bering Sea and the Pacific Ocean, riddled by volcanic activity from the Pacific tectonic plate, part of Earth's "Ring of Fire." While the United Nations estimates that, as of 2019, Indigenous people (also known as Aboriginals, First Peoples or Natives) comprise 5% of the global population, in Kamchatka, that number is 10%. Some of the Native groups of this region include the Koryaks, Alyutor, Chukchi, Kamchadal, Itelmens, Aleut and Even.

Each group is nuanced and distinct. For instance, the Evens—of whom there are nearly 2,500 on Kamchatka today—are relative newcomers to the peninsula. In the 17th century, pursuing new hunting grounds, a faction of the Even wandered into the desolate regions of Kamchatka, where Koryak and Chukchi lived nomadically. This split resulted in cultural differences between Kamchatka Even and those living beyond the peninsula, for the Kamchatka Even had to learn to survive in isolation. They maintain a semi-nomadic way of life, and have diversified their economic structures by merging reindeer herding, taiga hunting and fishing. They've expanded transportation modes by embracing dog sledding and horse riding, depending on the season. Adapting to new surroundings and borrowing ideas from the Koryaks, Itelmens and Yakuts, this group has grown to 2,500 people. In modernizing to a degree, some traditional hunting methods and portable dwellings have been modified. Many reside in cabins, except when camping. Many have added guns to their arsenal of hunting gear. Although approached by Christian missionaries, they retain rituals and behavioral norms embedded in their shamanistic belief system, which shape practices related to hunting, relationships with nature and festival activities.

The Koryaks have a different history and way of life, with anthropologists speculating that their ancestors have lived in, or traveled across this region for millennia, probably crossing back and forth between Asia and America during the ice age. Their cultural framework is focused on connecting independent but interrelated tribes in order to survive. As far back as the 18th century, the Koryaks had two distinct branches of economic structures and corresponding subcultures: the nomadic reindeer herders, and sedentary coastal fishers and sea mammal hunters. And from there, a variety of subgroups split off—the Karagins, Apukins, Palan, Alyutors, and so on—still uniting over shared language, large-scale reindeer herding (thousands, relative to the Evens' hundreds), sled transportation, boat transportation and settlement structures. With a mix of shamanism and animism, only a relatively small portion of the population were baptized by Christian missionaries from the 1700s to 1900s, and the Koryak have maintained a close connection with amulets, sacred places, spirit protectors and divination stones.

As described by the Arctic Network for the Support of the Indigenous Peoples of the Russian Arctic (ANSIPRA), Russian Indigenous groups often share some similar features despite their differences. There is a tendency towards nomadic or semi-nomadic lifestyles, largely because many of these groups base their livelihoods on hunting, gathering, fishing or herding. Many practice animism, a belief system that asserts every natural thing in the universe has a soul. Most belong to similar ethno-linguistic groups: Uralic, Altaic and Paleo-Siberian.

Today, Indigenous peoples struggle to preserve their cultures. The International Work Group for Indigenous Affairs states that on the Kamchatka peninsula there have been recent bans on Indigenous peoples' traditional fishing and retractions of protected Indigenous territories. Further, it is well-documented that Indigenous peoples face disproportionate challenges related to poverty and general well-being. The United Nations reports that these hardships are consequences of historical injustices, "colonization, dispossession of their lands, territories and resources, oppression and discrimination, as well as lack of control over their own ways of life." To learn more about Kamchatka's people—Indigenous, Russian and immigrant—through an interwoven mystery-thriller about two vanished girls, pick up a copy of Disappearing Earth by Julia Phillips.

Valley of the Geysers in the Kamchatka Peninsula, courtesy of Lonely Planet

By Jamie Chornoby

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