Summary and book reviews of Disappearing Earth by Julia Phillips

Disappearing Earth

by Julia Phillips

Disappearing Earth by Julia Phillips X
Disappearing Earth by Julia Phillips
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     Not Yet Rated
  • First Published:
    May 2019, 272 pages
    Paperback:
    Apr 2020, 272 pages

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Book Reviewed by:
Jamie Chornoby
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About this Book

Book Summary

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 ...

Please be aware that this discussion guide may contain spoilers!
  1. In the first chapter, Alyona tells a story about a town that suddenly disappears when a wave washes it away. How is the theme of disappearance explored throughout the rest of the novel? How does this opening story relate to other examples of disappearances in the book? What does the title, Disappearing Earth, mean to you?
  2. Before Alyona and Sophia went missing, another young woman, Lilia, disappeared too. How are these two crimes treated differently in their communities? How are they similar? How does the social, political, and economic climate of Kamchatka affect the way these victims are viewed and discussed? Do you see any similarities to the way people talk about crimes in your own community?
  3. How do you think the sparsely populated...
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Reviews

BookBrowse Review

BookBrowse

With transportive, immersive prose, Phillips synthesizes her characters' world, creating something that is sharp and clear. Striking a balance between immersive fiction and realistic contextual elements—in geographic accuracy, cultural attentiveness and more—there is something here for every reader...continued

Full Review (604 words).

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(Reviewed by Jamie Chornoby).

Media Reviews

New York Times
[I]f there is a single misstep in Phillips’s nearly flawless novel, it arrives with the tidy ending that seems to serve the needs of a genre rather than those of this particularly brilliant novel. But a tidy ending does not diminish Phillips’s deep examination of loss and longing, and it is a testament to the novel’s power that knowing what happened to the sisters remains very much beside the point.

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.

Library Journal (starred review)
Cinematic...A knockout novel that combines literary heft with a propulsive plot...Phillips imagines a cold, desolate climate inhabited by characters who exude warmth and strength...Dazzlingly original.

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.

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.

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Beyond the Book

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,...

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