Julia Phillips’s Disappearing Earth opens on the shores of a sea lapping at the edges of the Siberian Peninsula. Two young sisters are playing on the beach. It’s a simple enough setting. The older one is trying to get the younger one to come home. You don’t yet know why, but you’re starting to feel unsettled and you can almost feel the oncoming danger. By the end of the chapter, the girls have disappeared.
The chapters that follow are not an investigation into the disappearance. Instead they are stories of various inhabitants located in and around the Kamchatka Peninsula. The disappearance of the girls hangs over each of them, but the stories are about their own lives. A new mother struggling to come to terms with staying at home and giving up her career. A mother whose child similarly disappeared three years ago. And that’s when the patterns start emerging. The complexity of relationships, the underlying beliefs and mistrust towards certain groups of people. Natives are treated in a slightly different way. There is a distrust towards the so-called new people who have migrated to the region. There are superstitions and practices. And you realize that ultimately people are the same, no matter where they are. We’re all dealing with the same issues.
The setting of Disappearing Earth makes you feel as though you’ve dipped your fingers into a faraway world. The descriptions of the volcanoes and open tundras and thermal springs and open fields add an allure to the overall story. You sometimes feel as though you really are at the end of the world. The ending is stunning, and Julia Phillips ties up at the loose ends in a way that makes you close the book with a satisfied hush.
Disappearing Earth by Julia Phillips. Penguin Random House, April 2020.
Reviewer bio: Karabi Mitra is an avid reader, based in Toronto. She also enjoys writing and has been published in various literary magazines such as Litro Magazine and Volney Road Review.