“Without her girls, all she had was this breathlessness. Terrible as it was—and it was, it was—it was all she had left to mother.”
This is the loss upon which Julia Phillips’ breathtaking debut novel Disappearing Earth pivots: two young sisters on Russia’s Kamchatka peninsula go missing, and while rumors of a kidnapping swirl, their mother Marina faces a desolate horizon without her beloved daughters. The story that follows could become a thrilling rush through the investigation, but instead, Phillips takes the ensuing year month by month, each chapter a glimpse into the life of a different woman in the orbit of the tragedy. Marina herself does not appear until ten months in, though her daughters are a thread throughout each story as a news headline, a haunting in the back of the women’s minds, a cautionary tale, the fixation of someone convinced she witnessed their abduction.
The women’s stories focus on the personal, but both the physical terrain of the peninsula and some of the stories’ underlying concerns have strong social and political implications. Phillips is attentive to the tensions between the white Russians and darker-skinned natives and the intergenerational conflict born of the older residents’ memory of a time when the peninsula was a closed military zone and protected from perceived external threats. The structural racism is made manifest in the experience of Alla Innokentevna, an indigenous woman whose own daughter’s disappearance received nothing of the media frenzy brought about by the that of the white Russian girls at the book’s open. There is an additional layer of misogyny throughout—men’s impulses and decisions falling like a shadow across the women’s paths.
Phillips herself is from Brooklyn, NY and traveled to Kamchatka to live for two years. To write a novel so beautifully and profoundly connected to its landscape—to the people, to the culture, to the earth—is a testament not only to the power of a writer’s craft but also to the power of the human mind and body to be fully present and aware of the world. During her time in Kamchatka, the author conversed with the people, engaging with them in order to understand their perspectives. In the resultant work, she does not try to lay claim to a people or a culture, but rather mines their experiences for elements of the universal. With these larger frameworks in place, Phillips fills them with particularities—the minutiae, sometimes odd, that comprise a life as lived.
By the end of the book, so many lives have passed through that it’s almost possible to forget a character who appears early on, like the composed Valentina Nikolaevna, a mother whose brief doctor’s visit suddenly finds her vulnerable on the operating table. But this is the magic of Phillips’ prose: just the mention of Valentina’s name toward the end of the novel brings back a flood of details, small moments—a surge that surrounds the shores Kamchatka and defines the land.
In one chapter, a nurse becomes widowed for the second time in an almost rhythmic disorientation that seeps into the narrative. She returns home to a space populated by evidence of her husband’s life: “On the bedside table, there was his book. His glass of water—she picked that up and drank it. She put the empty glass on his side of the blanket, and the book there, too. They made little dents in the wool.” Disappearing Earth has a sweeping feel, but it these little dents in the wool, the impact of small details, that hold the novel together and define its topography.