Caution: I don’t reveal who the culprit or culprits is in this review, so I don’t think this is a spoiler-ish review, but proceed with caution anyhow!
Like any great novel, Julia Phillips’ 2019 undefinable novel, Disappearing Earth, is ostensibly about one thing — the disappearance of two sisters, Sophia and Alyona (whose interplay at the beginning of the book is so familiar and moving in that way), from Kamchatka in northeastern Russia — but is actually about something else entirely: the ways in which the earth disappears under the feet of women; the ways in which whole societies disappear from the earth, as if as an alien civilization (that has double meaning here; thanks, Denis!); and the ways in which history, while seemingly having disappeared, finds a way of returning to the present, setting its roots down for the future.
Phillips’ book, albeit only 256 pages (the paperback edition), is hefty in what she is conveying and the many character she is juggling: The beginning offers a list of characters that feels Stephen King-esque in how daunting it may seem to have to keep track of all of these characters as a reader. But in Phillips’ assured hands, we jump from character to character — and month to month since the kidnapping of the two sisters — in vignette style exploring the depths of the women at the helm of each chapter. In the background of exploring their depths, we’re reminded of the kidnapping, as well as the prior disappearance of Lilia, which people assumed wasn’t connected to the two sisters’ kidnapping because Lilia was just out of high school, and rumor has it that she was a whore, so meh, she probably ran off! Heck, even the two sisters, they probably just drowned! There is no kidnapper or rapist or murderer. No stranger. Just girls being … girls. Moms not being moms. That kind of thing, right? Doubting women. Ignoring women. Making women invisible.
The best kind of book lingers with you between each sitting with it and I found myself wondering about Natalia, Lilia’s older sister, and her attempt to form friendship beyond motherhood and her strained relationship with her mother and brother, Denis, who she blames for not paying more attention to Lilia and instead obsessing over aliens; or Ksyusha, a university student who was seemingly groomed by her brother, Chegga’s, older friend, Ruslan, and the ways in which he’s still controlling her, and yet, she falls for another man, Chandler, at a dance troupe; or Lada, who misses her best friend from childhood, and nearly sleeps with the killer (and it turns out, her best friend is a lesbian, which is still dangerous in Russia, and there is a hint that they were budding lovers); or Nadia, Chegga’s girlfriend, who takes her daughter conceived with another man, Mila, back to her parents to get away from Chegga and his lack of ambition and broken dreams, only to return to him finding she has nowhere else to go; or even Zoya, the wife of detective Kolya, who just birthed their daughter, Sasha, but is fixated on the migrant help — just to feel something, anything; or the lovely story of Olya, who simply wants to hang out with her best friend, Diana, but Diana is pulling away and they’re growing apart, spurred on in part by the fear in the wake of the sisters’ disappearance; and it doesn’t help that Diana’s mother, Valentina, is interjecting, a Soviet-era woman, who is headstrong and tries to project it, despite the slightest blemish on her skin turning to cancer because she ignored it for months; or poor Oksana, who gosh darnit, just wants to hang out with her dog, but is troubled by being the one witness to the sisters’ kidnapping; or the sidebar story about Katya, who figured Max was a steamy, lustful dalliance that could be something more, but instead, she realizes how inadequate Max is and yet, he also rises to the challenge when a bear tries to attack their vehicle while camping? And then we end with the woman we’ve been waiting for: Marina, the mother of the two sisters missing. She has her own relationship hang-up with their father, and her own guilt about not watching her daughters “better,” and her own frustration at people trying to “fix it” and leech off of her, and the way Phillips writes Marina as nearly-always on the brink of a panic attack makes that whole chapter claustrophobic, particularly juxtaposed to her and others finally making a breakthrough on the case to catch the kidnapper.
These women are fascinating, complex, belie definition and categorization and boxing in, and they hum and vibrate off the page, thanks to Phillips taut, beautiful, mining-their-sorrows writing. Grief, love, pain, ambitions, dreams — all of these feelings and emotions are manifest throughout to make for a captivating, compelling read. Phillips wrote a thriller about relationships and about our own messy souls, not crime.
And you can’t talk about any of this without talking about the backdrop of Kamchatka, where the kidnapping happens in the city of Petropavlovsk-Kamchatsky, but there is also the tension with the outer villages, such as Esso. Undeniably, Phillips has etched a class divide story that is as riveting as the women characters: How the city police (and Moscow, by extension, because everything goes back to Moscow and the “party”) don’t care about the villagers, and therefore, don’t care about Lilia’s disappearance; and how there is still tension between those who are white Russians and those are dark-skinned villagers, who are more used to herding animals out in the vastness of the tundra than being in the city square.
Kamchatka is a place I didn’t want to leave. I wanted to explore it more; to explore Esso more; to explore the vastness of the tundra more. As well-drawn as all of those characters Phillips created are — seriously, there are a dozen women characters I was deeply invested in throughout the book — and as cliché as it is to say, the “character” of Kamchatka and its apparent class divides was just as richly drawn and interesting for mining. It also doesn’t escape me that I’m reading a book that takes place in Russia while Russia invades Ukraine. The book feels highly relevant in the way in which some of our characters feel torn asunder by growing up with one foot still in the echoes of the U.S.S.R and one foot in the lesser-than Putin regime. There is even mention by Phillips of incursions into Ukraine and attempts at peace.
The best part about the book? A book that talks about 12 Russian women, some who speak Even, an endangered language that only some 5,700 native speakers speak as of the 2010 Census, who are propagandists for the regime, mothers, daughters, children, wayward souls, and that takes place in the Far East of Russia, in a place that seems hard for me to understand in its vastness, and yet, also in its smallness? Its universality. We’re all human, and every ache, every pain, every question raised by these 12 women are universal aches, pains and questions. And as is the case universally, there are no easy answers at the ready. There are no neat and tidy conclusions. It is messy. Life is messy.
The reason I called the book undefinable is because it takes something typical in books these days as a premise (girls being kidnapped) and does something so new, so fresh and so authentic with it. By weaving their disappearance through the lives of these 12 women, some of whom connect by the book’s end, Phillips has done a masterful job of making myth out of an ordinary kidnapping among those who tell it, and making salient the way in which we are all trying to situate ourselves in a disappearing Earth of a kind … the one within us and our place within it.
Mark it: March 13, 2022. I have a hard time imagining that I will read a better fiction book this year than Phillips’. I’m stunned.