book cover against bookshelves

Disappearing Earth

Author Julia Phillips

I think I’ve got a not so secret passion for fiction set in Russia. I’ve eagerly read through the night several fairytales that have come from Russian folklore and Disappearing Earth, my first contemporary story set on the remote Siberian peninsula of Kamchatka, was a similar experience.

Eight year old Aloyna and her younger sister Sophia are abducted in August (our first chapter) from the city of Petropavlovsk-Kamchatsky, a small city isolated for much of the year due to weather and geographic location. Each chapter continues on from August and introduces the reader to a new set of characters, all linked to the city in some way. All characters who have heard of the missing girls, an unheard of tale in this small city. Each chapter is the next consecutive month, in September we hear that the search is ongoing, in October we learn that a culprit is being identified. The story isn’t only about the abduction but the impact of loss, the expectations on ourselves and the lens through which one views strangers.

“Everyone looked better at a distance. Everyone sounded sweetest when you did not have to hear them talk too long. After her husband hung up, Natasha skated past her brother at the wall, their mother cleaning her glasses beside him. Loving someone close-up—that was difficult.”

Julia Phillips, Disappearing Earth

Very cleverly told, each story is woven in the same tone but from very unique perspectives. Like a blurry puzzle slowly becoming clearer, each chapter adds small details on the mystery of the girls – don’t go into this book expecting a story about missing young girls. It isn’t just that. At the half way mark, I was invested in all of the characters I had encountered. The last book I recall that made me feel for such a diverse and non-linear cast was A Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan. It is quite difficult to hold the tension of the missing girls whilst caring about a self-righteous administrative clerk, but that is exactly what happened.

The atmosphere and location are a driving force in their own right. This story placed anywhere else may not have been as effective and evocative as it was, yet on the isolated shores, wide ranging mountains and lonely expanses of land, it made a strange kind of sense. I found myself completely immersed in the locales, remote villages I had never imagined became very real.

This is Julia Phillips debut novel and I am very keen to see what her follow up looks like. This sort of debut is difficult to follow up. There was a note in my copy that some of the chapters had been published as short stories in various publications; credit to her writing that during reading there was nothing disjointed about the storytelling. In fact, it felt very much intended and the ebbs and flows were consistent.

An intriguing and haunting read for fans of literary fiction / layered mysteries. There is a strong and powerful subtext woven throughout on race, gender, identity and cultural acceptance via small city politics in a slowly changing Russia.

Five Stars*

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