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!)