Review: Disappearing Earth, Julia Phillips

Want a debut novel to smack you in the face with the sheer force of its achievement? Alas, I do not refer to my own!

Disappearing Earth is by Julia Phillips, who lives in Brooklyn but set her tale in modern-day Russia, a physical and cultural setting as central to, and in a way more present in the book than, the people it’s actually about: two young sisters, Sophia and Alyona, who vanish from the major city of the southern Kamchatka peninsula.

Their story unfolds in a series of vignettes, bookended by the first (the sisters at the beach in the final moments before their disappearance) and the penultimate (showing their mother Marina, surviving physically but with the spirit crushed from her by their abduction and year’s absence).

The stories between, one for each month, enter the lives of women across the country, all loosely connected both to each other and to the crime. They explore its impact on them and on their society, a complex one simmering with tensions: between indigenous and non-indigenous peoples, originating when the monarchy gave way to Communism; between the country’s urban south and inhospitable north. Tensions that ultimately threaten to derail the investigation.

This much-lauded book has been described as a thriller, unputdownable. But as a person who doesn’t usually enjoy short stories, finding full-length novels more immersive and satisfying, I felt at times this structure that gives only glimpses into characters’ lives then moves on, instead of building thriller-like tension, was frustrating me instead. I wanted a bit more about the mystery, and by the penultimate story had been thinking for a while, “enough now. What about the girls?!!”

But as if the author heard me, then came the breathless visit to Marina, their mother, a truly stunningly-written study of grief and dread; and speedily after, the climax. And while after so long waiting the climax seemed somewhat brief, this doesn’t diminish the achievement of this novel, staggering in its breadth, insight and sensory detail, making contemporary Russia an endlessly fascinating landscape.

Highly recommended, one of my standout reads of 2020 (post to come!)

Markus Zusak gives glimpse behind the scenes of latest bestseller, Bridge of Clay

Some people were disappointed Markus Zusak’s latest novel Bridge of Clay, about which he will speak in hotly anticipated events at Perth Writer’s Week, isn’t more like the book that catapulted him to global fame: The Book Thief.

Zusak’s six novels have earned him ten years on the New York Times bestseller list and established him as one of Australia’s biggest authors. The Book Thief has been translated into more than 40 languages and is now a major movie.

The Book Thief has been called "the best book of all time"... no pressure, eh?
Markus Zusak

But while The Book Thief’s Nazi Germany and Bridge of Clay’s suburban Australia tell wildly different stories in almost diametrically opposed settings, they share more subtle likenesses.

Both deal deeply with grief and pain, forcing the reader to feel and recall emotions at once deeply private and universally human.

Yet both do so artfully; far from being simple stories about loss, they both employ the device of an all-important, all-seeing central narrator who shows how people’s lives become intertwined through love and shared history.

Bridge of Clay is about a dying mother; but it is about far more than that. The 600-page saga is set up like a mystery, its pages littered with clues: a mattress. A mule. A murderer. An obstacle course. A clothespeg. And the iron gamepiece from a Monopoly set. Just to name a few.

Read the rest of this story on WAtoday.

Read my story on the Perth Writers Week program: Toil, timing and a dash of luck: Perth Writers Week books the big guns


New Australian fiction: Afternoons with Harvey Beam, by Carrie Cox

As a young man, Harvey Beam got the hell out of his hometown, confirming his suspicions that you can successfully run away from your problems. But after forging a big-city career in talkback radio, Harvey is now experiencing a ‘positional hiatus’. The words aren’t coming out right, Harvey’s mojo is fading and a celebrity host is eyeing his timeslot.

Back in Shorton, Harvey’s father Lionel appears at long last to be dying. It seems it’s finally time for Harvey Beam to head home and face a different kind of music.

In wading through a past that seems disturbingly unchanged, the last thing he expects is a chance encounter with a wonderful stranger…

Perth journalist Carrie Cox is the author of Coal, Crisis, Challenge and You Take the High Road and I’ll Take the Bus. This is her debut novel but it reads as though she has been writing fiction for years.

The premise sounds rich with the promise of drama and the narrative didn’t disappoint, unfolding in a way that kept me guessing right up until a neat tail-twist I never saw coming.

Cox has a gift for evoking places and people with deft, apt descriptions that are never laboured or overdone.

Her characters are filled-out, humanly flawed and likeable.

She gracefully manages the balancing act of focusing on and building the internal life of Harvey Beam, while spinning you through the story.

She invites you to understand the joy and madness, the peculiar intimacy and alchemy of the talkback radio world.

She has unerring insight into people and families, but still respects the mysteries at their centres.

Her creation of an eye-rolling teenager in Harvey’s daughter Cate is spot-on. It’s no caricature, however, but a sympathetic and sweet portrait of a girl who becomes an unexpected sidekick for Harvey in his family drama.

The topics are deep but Cox’s touch is light; all the while she is unfailingly, confidently funny.

She has nailed it and I can’t wait for the next book.

*Afternoons with Harvey Beam is at bookshops now. I got mine from Boffins.