A stunning debut from an acclaimed travel writer, Disappearing Earth is about two sisters who go missing on the remote volcanic peninsula of Kamchatka.
Clues to the crime lie in the lives - and stories of violence and loss - of twelve women in the girls' rural Russian community. As the police quickly lose interest in the case, these women never stop searching and hoping.
Beautifully written, thought-provoking, intense and cleverly wrought, this is the first novel from a mesmerising new talent.
APPLE BOOKS REVIEW
Pay close attention as you enter Julia Phillips’ impressive and complex novel set on Kamchatka, the gorgeously remote Russian peninsula. Otherwise, you may find yourself as lost as the two young girls whose kidnapping sets off the kaleidoscopic story that follows. Fortunately, Phillips rewards our attention with her butterfly-effect examination of that mysterious unsolved crime and its many surprising reverberations throughout the community. It all adds up to a rich, compassionate portrait of a changing culture and landscape.
In the opening chapter of Phillips's exceptional and suspenseful debut, two sisters Sofia, 8, and Alyona, 11 vanish from a beach on the Kamchatka Peninsula in northeastern Russia, and their disappearance sends ripples throughout the close-knit community. The subsequent 12 chapters, taking place during the months over the following year, chart the impact of the potential kidnapping and the destructive effect of longing and loss and play out in a series of interconnected and equally riveting stories about others in the surrounding area. "April" peeks into the day-to-day of a policeman's restless wife, who, while on maternity leave, is haunted by missed opportunities and " things darker, stranger, out of bounds." In "May," shrewlike Oksana, the abduction's only witness, severs ties with a colleague after the colleague's absentminded husband loses Oksana's beloved dog. The penultimate chapter unites some of the book's disparate threads, and follows Sofia and Alyona's anxious and emotionally ravaged mother, Marina, as she meets a photographer at a solstice festival who uncovers a potential link to an earlier unsolved missing-persons case and an important clue about who the perpetrator of both crimes might be. The discovery leads to a truly nail-biting climax and the novel's shocking conclusion that even eagle-eyed readers might not see coming. Phillips's exquisite descriptions of the desolate landscape and the "empty, rolling earth" are masterful throughout, as is her skill at crafting a complex and genuinely addictive whodunit. This novel signals the arrival of a mighty talent.
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From Russia with something
This is the first novel by a young American woman, who is a self-confessed Russophile. She spent time in Moscow during her college years then, when she decided to write a novel, used the proceeds of her Fulbright scholarship to live for a time in Petropavlovsk-Kamchatsky.
That's the largest city in the Kamchatka Peninsula: the bit of Russia that dangles like a giant seed pod from the eastern end of Siberia. Bordered by ocean on three sides and an impassable mountainous tundra to the north, Kamchatka is more an island than a peninsula. The only ways in and out are by sea and air. It's on the rim of fire so there's plenty of volcanos and hot springs too.
In chapter one, a male stranger entices two young daughters (ages 11 and 8) of a single mother into his car one sunny August day. An investigation and search ensues. In an interview, Ms Phillips admitted to a fascination with abducted girl stories and already had her story line in mind when she travelled to Russia.
The book unfolds in a series of chapters, one for each month that follows, describing the impact of the abduction on different local women, most of whom have little or no connection to the victim. The investigation is not the focus. The girls only reappear in the final chapter and not in the way you might expect. Rather, it's a book about the lived experience of women in a patriarchal, xenophobic society.
Ms Phillips brings all her American sensibilities to bear with the result there was little or no "Russianness" that I could discern. She implied that was her intention in the above-mentioned interview. I'm not sure why.
This intriguing book is well written but failed to galvanise any great interest from me, probably because I'm an old, white patriarchal kind of guy. Women will almost certainly like it more, but if you're after a mystery story, look elsewhere.