Disappearing Earth by Julia Phillips


This remarkable novel on the NYT list of the ten best novels of 2019 is the author’s first. It is set on Kamchatka, a remote peninsula in the east of Russia, much closer to Alaska than to Moscow. It takes place over the course of a year, a chapter for each month. The first chapter describes a terrible event, the kidnapping of two young girls, that was very difficult for me to read. Each following chapter describes a bit of the life of various characters, along their connection to the kidnapping. Because the population of Kamchatka is 300,000, most of whom live in its one metropolitan city, everyone was touched by it.

The stories focus on women, some divorced, some widowed, one with a husband who works far away. One is a college student who revels in having two boyfriends, a situation she knows will be short-lived. Another is a successful, competent young woman who can’t help her attraction to an “idiot” who forgets to bring the tent on their camping trip. One is the wife of the policeman charged with investigating the kidnapping; the story is about her life, not his investigation. The dips into their lives focus on the dangers women face in the world, underscored by the kidnapping.

Kamchatka’s city Petropavlovsk is largely Russian; indigenous people live in the remote north where there are few roads. Esso is a village of “picturesque wooden cottages,” according to Lonely Planet. Nomadic reindeer herders live in the area. The contrast of life for Russians in Petropavlovsk to life for the indigenous groups and their alienation to each other figure in the stories. Another theme is the contrast of life when the peninsula was a truly isolated, closed to Soviet citizens and other outsiders to present times with the changes that immigrants bring. Some of the characters in the novel bemoan those changes and blame all ills on them, in this case, the kidnapping.

The character Katya’s family life changed at the end of the Soviet era:

After the USSR collapsed, there were no longer any restrictions on travel, no stop to movement; the Soviet military bases that had constrained the entire peninsula were shuttered, so Kamchatka’s residents could finally explore their own land. Katya’s family had gone as far north as Esso to meet the natives with their reindeer herds, west to see steaming craters, and south to pull caviar out of what had become unpatrolled lakes. She spent her youth in the brief reckless period between the Communists’ rigidity and Putin’s strength, and though she had grown into a boundary enforcer, inspecting imports and issuing citations, within herself there remained a post-Soviet child. Some part of her did crave the wild.

It was the author’s long time interest in Russia that moved her to use it for the setting of the book; she spent a year in Kamchatka to learn about this unique place that presents the universal issues in our lives.

The end of the book is surprising, shocking to me, and left me unsettled. Overall, with a little distance and lots of rumination, I move toward agreement with the NYT.

Julia Phillips, Disappearing Earth, Alfred A. Knopf, 2019, 261 pages (I read the kindle version). Available at the UVa and public libraries and from Amazon.

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