In Julia Phillips’ affecting debut novel Disappearing Earth (Knopf), two sisters, ages eleven and eight, go missing one afternoon in a once-cloistered town at the northeastern edge of Russia. The effects of their disappearance play out for the following year among residents in this community, dredging up fears especially among women. We hear from a witness, a neighbor, a detective, and a mother, among others, all of whom offer a new and unique angle from which to view the story.
The earth and environment fluctuate around these various characters—literally, for as the missing girls’ mother described an earthquake in 1997: “…the cabinet doors [swung] so jars of preserves could dance out, the eggy smell of leaking gas made her head ache… cars ground into each other and the asphalt opened up.” In a broader sense, too, life in the peninsula is changing dramatically in the modern age, post-USSR. Phillips writes, in the past “…there were no longer any restrictions on travel, no stop to movement; the Soviet military bases that had constrained the peninsula were shuttered so Kamchatka’s residents could finally explore their own land.”
Established traditions and roles butt against the reality of a more open—and, at least seemingly—dangerous society. For some characters, these shifts produce an intense longing for a bygone era coupled with a mistrust of ‘the other.’ In the second chapter, thirteen-year-old Olya loses her best friend, Diana, in the aftermath of the kidnappings because Diana’s mother, Valentina, fears that Olya’s independent streak will lead to calamity. Largely unsupervised by her own working mother and craving the animal thrills of discovery, Olya roams the town—“She was a beast. This was her hollow”—while Diana becomes a virtual captive. Valentina notes how safe the town was under Soviet rule: “No foreigners. No outsiders. Opening the peninsula was the biggest mistake our authorities ever made.” Later, Valentine speaks about how “Military funding used to stuff the stores with food. There were no vagrants, no salmon poachers.” I found another observation about Valentina to be particularly startling: she pities the children “who would grow up without the love of a motherland.”
In addition, Phillips plays with themes of animal instinct versus civilization and beauty. In another chapter, young lovers Katya and Max navigate a night of camping out that turns menacing. Phillips writes, “When Max whispered caution into Katya’s mouth, she only wrapped her arms around his neck and pulled him closer. She wanted his beauty to blot out all fear.” Later, this same character acknowledges, “…part of her did crave the wild.”
Throughout, Phillips draws fascinating parallels between Russia and the West. For me, this novel called into question the contemporary Russian of my imagination, which, admittedly, was limited to stereotypes about concrete block buildings. I assumed the population was fairly homogeneous, and I found it illuminating to read about cultural clashes. In a later chapter, Phillips presents a college student, Ksyusha, who belongs to a northern, native tribe (“The herding camp stink—smoke, meat, mildew—had somehow followed her way all the way down here [to the city]”) and dances in a traditional troupe. Struggling with whether to assimilate, she finds herself bound to her history while yearning to experience the freedom offered by her new surroundings.
Phillips’ story displays a wonderful sense of universality, speaking to the human condition in invoking issues such as nostalgia and remembrance. These are fully-alive and complex characters, and Phillips paints them with lyrical and often elegiac language. She calls one of the missing sisters “a container around a limitless appetite”—an apt description for all of the individuals in this assured debut.
Disappearing Earth is now available.
About Julia Phillips
Julia Phillips is a Fulbright fellow whose writing has appeared in Glimmer Train, The Atlantic, Slate, and The Moscow Times. She lives in Brooklyn.