Disappearing Earth by Julia Phillips 2019
In her debut novel, Phillips uses the standard detective story trope of the ‘kidnapped girls’ to weave a complicated story about place and relationships.
What begins with the abduction of two young sisters on the Russian peninsula of Kamchatka, becomes the vehicle for 12 different women, all related in some way to those girls, to tell their individual stories. From a pre-adolescent girl whose best friend’s mother won’t let her hang out with her friend anymore (she’s a bad influence), to that mother whose well-ordered life is about to be turned upside down due to cancer, from the only witness to the abduction whose dog runs away to the wife of the police detective leading the investigation, and on and on, we meet women whose lives are unsatisfying, unhappy, or just plain boring and all of them relate in some way to the abducted girls.
As The New Yorker review described it, this is a ‘hard to classify’ novel. Is it a detective story? Not really since there is little time devoted to solving the actual abduction. Is it a story about a place, Kamchatka?—sort of since we learn a great deal about its geography, native ethnic groups, isolation (you can only reach it by boat or plane), and changes after the fall of the USSR. Ultimately, it’s a story about people and how they manage to get through the days and their lives—as Cheryl Wheeler, my favorite folk singer, wrote and sang: Life is short, but the days and nights are long.