By Julia Phillips. Vintage Books, 2020. 256 pages. $16.95.
In the first chapter of this brilliant and bestselling novel, which was a National Book Award Finalist, two young sisters are playing along the shore at the edge of Petropavlovsk, on Russia’s Kamchatka Peninsula. The 11-year-old scares her younger sibling with a story about a village that was washed away by a tsunami following an earthquake, and then they start for home. A few pages later, they’ve been swept away themselves — but not by water.
Month by month after that, the novel follows four families plus a number of other individuals as their lives are undermined and influenced by the sudden disappearance of the two girls. (A listing of characters in the front of the book, along with a map of the peninsula and its principal towns and villages, provides a handy reference for remembering relationships to the event and what become intertwined lives.) One of the families, it develops, also lost a daughter, a teenager thought to have run away from her difficult family and confining village life three years earlier.
Set in the present day, the story presents modern life in a part of Russia close to Alaska geographically and historically but until quite recently closed to outsiders and still remote from the rest of its country. Characters include volcano researchers, a journalist/propagandist, a photographer, mothers and grandmothers, a customs officer, a detective, reindeer herders, a student, and the director of a cultural center. They are ethnic Russians and Indigenous peoples — Even, Koryak, Itelman and Chukchi. They have cellphones and dachas and plenty of personal problems. Life has changed since the secure and predictable days of Communism; it’s freer but riskier, with more uncertainty and division, with food and supply shortages and corruption. There is also more mobility and an influx of migrants, who are not always welcomed. There is “always some new catastrophe.”
Phillips’ writing is simply beautiful. Here’s a character’s memory of reindeer herding: “The blue-lit black of nights. The limitless dry yellow days. For all that she loathed about those summers, setting up camp in the rain and pretending not to hear insults spoken in Even and growing sick from the smell of singed fur, they had become some of the most vivid times of her life.” In a Native dance group in the city, she wears over her jeans “a leather dress hung heavy, with red squares embroidered from its bottom hem up to her knees. Strings of beads swung from medallions at her waistline.” Another character, speaking of herself, says, “You keep the edge of your affection sharp, a knife, so that those near you know to handle it carefully.”
Aside from the vivid writing, the fast-moving plot and compelling characters — all of which will appeal to readers generally — Alaskans will find significant relevance in parallels of experience. In particular, the author presents contrasts between urban and rural life and between the lives of ethnic Russians (mostly living in the south) and those of the various Native peoples (living in the north.) Inequalities and historical traumas express themselves in various ways throughout.
An ill-tempered Russian character is quick to place blame for the post-Soviet changes: “Opening the peninsula was the biggest mistake the authorities ever made. Now we’re overrun with these tourists, migrants. Natives. These criminals.” (Her daughter asks, “Weren’t the natives always here?”)
The Even student, originally from the north, recalls her first days in the city, being taunted as a “reindeer herder.” “Her face was too native, she knew.” Insecure, she places herself in the protection (control) of a Russian boyfriend but later joins a dance troupe with other Natives and rejoices in the cultural connection.
Late in the novel, several of the key characters converge at a celebration of Native culture, a dance festival to celebrate the Even New Year, which begins with the summer solstice. The Russian journalist/propagandist, who had once won a prize for her reporting on salmon poaching before settling for a safer, duller life, realizes how little she knows of Native life, or life in the north generally. “Her grandparents used to speak fondly about how the peninsula’s natives had been pushed together, Sovietized, with their lands turned public, the adults redistributed into working collectives and the children taught Marxist-Leninist ideology in state boarding schools.”
Key to the stories that twine themselves together is the disparity between the two cases of missing persons — the easy dismissal of a Native girl (“the child of a nobody”) as a runaway and the intense concern and publicity surrounding the young, fair-haired Russians.
While “Disappearing Earth” is a book that explores how the tragedy of missing children affects the lives of mothers, families, even strangers and entire communities, it is more than that. It dives deeply into questions of all forms of violence and loss in the lives of girls and women. The experiences and emotions of those affected are wrought here in authentic, painful detail that somehow, through Phillips’ extraordinary sensitivity and writing skills, opens readers to life-affirming understanding.
The author, an American who spent time in Kamchatka as a Fulbright Fellow, has brought both the reality of our neighbor country and human hearts everywhere into lucid light. “Disappearing Earth” is her first book.