Julia Phillips’ debut novel, Disappearing Earth, has been hovering close to the top of my to-read list since its publication in 2019. The novel was a finalist for the National Book Award in its publication year, and reviewers have called it, variously, ‘mesmerising’, ‘a riveting page-turner’, ‘immensely moving’, and ‘a genuine masterpiece’.
Disappearing Earth opens on an August afternoon in Kamchatka, an isolated peninsula in northeastern Siberia. The region is ‘as complex as it is alluring, where social and ethnic tensions have long simmered, and where outsiders are often the first to be accused.’ To give one an idea of the isolation of the region, Phillips writes: ‘To the south west, and west was only ocean… Roads within Kamchatka were few and broken; some, to the lower and central villages, were made of dirt, washed out for most of the year; others, to the upper villages, only existed in winter, when they were pounded out of ice. No roads connected the peninsula to the rest of the continent. No one could come or go over land.’ From here, it would take nine hours to fly to Moscow, Russia’s capital city.
In the biggest city on the Kamchatka peninsula, Petropavlosk-Kamchatsky, two young sisters are abducted; a subsequent police search finds nothing of their whereabouts. Their disappearance shocks the whole community, ‘with the fear and loss felt most deeply among its women.’ Phillips’ entire cast of characters are connected by this ‘unfathomable crime’. The sisters are Alyona and Sophia Golosovskaya, just eleven and eight years old respectively. From the first chapter, which details their disappearance, we learn of their close relationship, and the way in which they have spent the entire summer with one another. The man who takes them, feigning a sore ankle so that they will see him back to his car, ‘looked carved out of fresh butter’.
The strong sense of place which suffuses the novel – it is almost a character in itself – is immediately apparent. Of the sisters, Phillips writes: ‘They sat under the peak of St. Nicholas Hill. If they had kept walking along the shoreline today, they would have seen the stony side of the hill eventually lower, exposing the stacked squares of a neighbourhood overhead. Five-story Soviet apartment buildings covered in patchwork concrete. The wooden frames of collapsed houses… the last bit of land before the sea.’
Following the abduction, each chapter focuses upon a different character, and details how they have been affected by the story of the Golosovskaya sisters. Each chapter also takes place in a subsequent month, so we move through an entire calendar year in the space of the novel. We meet, for instance, a teenage girl named Olya, who loses her best friend when she expresses her belief that is completely safe to be alone in the city. We also learn of a young indigenous woman, who disappeared some time before the sisters, and who was never searched for properly due to police bias. As Phillips writes: ‘Reporters behaved as though the sisters from this summer invented the act of vanishing.’ The relationships which are imagined between characters are complex, and tautly drawn.
Aside from the disappearance, Phillips deals with some very important issues, including corruption; poverty; media bias and propaganda; racism against indigenous peoples; separation; isolation and solitude; and the way in which so many things have changed since the collapse of the USSR. The many and varied concerns of the characters feel realistic, as does the search for the ‘two small white bodies’, which ‘served as a good excuse to ignore the city’s other corruptions…’.
I was so interested to read about Kamchatka, where few novels are set, and Phillips held my interest throughout. It feels as though Phillips knows the places and spaces which she writes about intimately. Although there is a lot of darkness within this novel, I would still like to visit the tundras and vast wildernesses of Russia, to see how they compare to Moscow and St Petersburg, which I am lucky enough to have visited.
Given its structure, Disappearing Earth is almost a short story collection, which is connected by a single, pivotal event. I really enjoyed the simple yet effective approach which Phillips has taken, focusing as she does on so many individuals, all of whom the reader gets to know very well. There are a lot of layers within this debut novel, and I very much look forward to reading whatever Phillips brings out next.