Things go missing in Disappearing Earth. Children. Friends. Lovers. Dogs. Love. Life as it once was and as it seemed it always would be. We learn early on that 11-year-old Alyona, a natural storyteller, “liked, every so often, to bring her [younger] sister to a place where she looked blank with fear”. Julia Phillips enjoys doing something similar to her readers. This is a narrative infused with tension and unease. What has become of Alyona and her sister, Sophia? Who are these people we meet in subsequent chapters – what clues do they offer and what mysteries do they introduce? Each chapter brings the story forward a month, and complicates the picture a little more.
Disappearing Earth is set in Russia’s far-eastern Kamchatka Peninsula, a place of wild, volcanic beauty and stark isolation, its cold north the homeland of reindeer-herding peoples, including the Evens. No roads connect the peninsula with the rest of Russia. Moscow is nine time zones away, and travel to St Petersburg might as well be a trip to the moon as far as most of Kamchatka’s inhabitants are concerned. The Soviets turned it into a military zone, closed by design as well as geography, and life under the military was regimented but secure, safe, predictable. The collapse of the Soviet Union meant new freedoms and opportunities, including for migrant workers and the indigenous peoples, but also new social disorders and anxieties.
Some people embrace change; others fear it. For the latter group, the disappeared girls become a symbol for the lost idyllic past. Alyona and Sophia are young and white enough to escape blame for their own disappearance. Not so the Even teenager Lilia, who also has gone missing: her ethnicity and sexual history make her complicit in the eyes of many. Other female characters disappear in less literal ways – their ambitions and desires crushed by controlling and manipulative men who claim only to be keeping them safe.
Julia Phillips, an American scholar of Russian literature, lived on the peninsula for a year as a Fulbright scholar. Her writing sparks off the page – muscular, textural and precise. The smell of toothpaste “glitters” between a husband and wife; raindrops falling on the roof of a tent make “noises like a thousand parting lips”; a heart is a “distractible creature”. Disappearing Earth is a powerful first novel that heralds an exceptional literary talent.
Scribner, 272pp, $32.99
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Jul 20, 2019 as "Julia Phillips, Disappearing Earth". Subscribe here.