I’ll say this about Disappearing Earth: I have never before read a novel set in Kamchatka. I doubt you have either. And I suspect you might be having trouble even locating Kamchatka on the globe. It’s not exactly a popular destination for Europeans or Americans (or anyone else, for that matter). Yet, for some unstated reason, Fulbright Scholar Julia Phillips spent a year studying at the University of Kamchatka, which is hardly one of the world’s great centers of learning. This widely acclaimed and popular novel is the result. The book was a Finalist for the National Book Award and named one of the 10 Best Books of the Year by the New York Times. And if you read it, you’re likely to remember the place for a long time to come. It presents a memorable picture of life in one of earth’s most isolated locales.
Disappearing Earth by Julia Phillips (2019) 262 pages @@@@ (4 out of 5)
Finalist for the National Book Award
To save you the trouble of rushing to Google Earth or an atlas, Kamchatka is an extension of Siberia that juts southeastward into the Pacific Ocean in Russia’s far east. It lies a considerable distance to the northeast of Japan. The peninsula houses some 300,000 people in approximately 100,000 square miles (about the size of the state of Colorado or Oregon). In other words, it’s big, and very sparsely populated. Well over half the peninsula’s population lives in its capital city, Petropavlovsk-Kamchatsky.
Disappearing Earth fits uneasily into the category of mystery and suspense. I say uneasily, because it’s unlikely you’ll find yourself on the edge of your seat wondering how the story will be resolved. Phillips cycles through an extensive cast of characters, vividly illustrating how they all react (or don’t) to the pivotal event on which the tale hangs: the disappearance in Petropavlovsk of two young girls.
Girls are disappearing in Kamchatka
We know Sophia, age eight, and Alyona, eleven, have been kidnapped. But few of the other characters in this novel seem to be aware of the fact, or believe it even when confronted with the evidence. And that includes the police, who for the most part are content to think the girls drowned. And as we make our way through the book, we learn that at least one other young woman in Kamchatka has also disappeared. There’s no apparent connection between her and Sophia and Alyona, and practically no one is even prepared to entertain the thought that she too might have been kidnapped.
Two societies, Russian and native, clash in Kamchatka
What lifts this novel above the level of a pedestrian mystery is its focus on race relations in Kamchatka. In villages scattered throughout the northern reaches of the peninsula live Siberian natives who speak a handful of local languages: Even, Koryak, Itelmen, Chukchi. The natives and the Russian majority, who are concentrated in the capital city, live together in mutual suspicion. And that suspicion is, of course, a factor in delaying the resolution of the girls’ kidnapping.
The resolution is a long time coming, and it’s clever. In the end, it seems obvious, but there are few hints of it along the way. And, by the way, the police are not the ones to solve the case.
Fortunately, Phillips prefaces her story with a list of principal characters. I found myself frequently skipping back to the list, since the book reads like so many Russian novels with too many characters whose names mutate at will. However, some characters who crop up in the novel are not present on the list, which adds an element of confusion to an already confusing tale.
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