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Review: Disappearing Earth by Julia Phillips

on July 26, 2019

Disappearing Earth
Julia Phillips
2019, 263p
Copy courtesy Simon & Schuster AUS

Blurb {from the publisher/}:

One August afternoon, on the shoreline of the Kamchatka peninsula at the northeastern tip of Russia, two girls – sisters, ages eight and eleven – go missing. The police investigation that follows turns up nothing. In the girls’ tightly-woven community, everyone must grapple with the loss. But the fear and danger of their disappearance is felt most profoundly among the women of this isolated place.

Taking us one chapter per month across a year on Kamchatka, this powerful novel connects the lives of characters changed by the sisters’ abduction: a witness, a neighbor, a detective, a mother. Theirs is an ethnically diverse population in which racial tensions simmer, and so-called “natives” are often suspected of the worst. As the story radiates from the peninsula’s capital city to its rural north, we are brought to places of astonishing beauty: densely wooded forests, open expanses of tundra, soaring volcanoes, and glassy seas.

Disappearing Earth is a multifaceted story of the intimate lives of women – their vulnerabilities and perils, their desires and dreams. It speaks to the complex yet enduring bonds of community as it offers startlingly vivid portraits of people reaching out to one another and, sometimes, reaching back to save each other. 

Spellbinding, moving – evoking a fascinating region on the other side of the world – this suspenseful and haunting story announces the debut of a profoundly gifted writer.

This starts off really promising. Firstly it was set in an area which I’m unfamiliar with, the Kamchatka peninsula in Russia. I’ve never read anything set there before and actually, I don’t read much set in Russia at all. What I have read has been more focused on the western parts, around Moscow and St Petersburg. It begins with two young girls, sisters 11 and 8, who are amusing themselves during their summer holidays. Their single mother has to work so often she leaves money for the girls to go to the movies or the zoo or to the beach. As they are about to go home from the beach, a man asks them for help and the two girls disappear.

After that there are a plethora of narrators who are connected to the crime somehow or the girls or connected to someone else connected to someone else connected to what happened, or from the same area or something else. Just as I would begin to get into each new part of the story, it would end and we would switch to someone else, which, as the book went on, I have to admit became quite annoying. I rarely felt like I got any sort of conclusion from any of these characters and some of them added very little, if anything, to the story. It was in some ways, an interesting portrayal of life in this part of the world but I don’t know how accurate it is, or if it evokes the feeling and character of eastern Russia. I don’t know anything about eastern Russia but the author isn’t Russian, although she did spend a year in this area presumably to research and write this. One of the characters is a native who resented her childhood spending summers herding with her family who seem to uphold a lot of the traditions. She’s now studying at a university and has a white Russian boyfriend who keeps tabs on her but finds herself drawn to another native student when she joins a dance class with her cousin. Also there is the contrast in police investigation between the two younger white girls that go missing compared with a native girl a bit older, where it’s just assumed that she ran away and never got in touch with her family. I know that the two girls further south were much younger, which also influenced an investigation but it seemed everyone was dismissive of the 18yo that disappeared. Because she was older, but also seemingly, because she was native.

Each of the individual chapters/sections were well written and also contained narratives I enjoyed but I think overall, the weaving together of them as a whole didn’t really work for me. I kept wondering too much about characters I’d seemingly left behind and whether or not I was ever going to get answers about them from the questions that were raised within their chapters. And sometimes things in there were seemingly just random. It’s a large cast of characters and I did have to constantly refer back to the list of characters at the beginning of the novel to remember who was related to who and why they were relevant. Some stages the book felt like it was starting to get bogged down and not know where to go which is a bit concerning when it’s under 300p. And I wasn’t really a big fan of the ending. Some people love an ending like that but overall, it wasn’t for me.

This was okay. Interesting in some parts but the constantly changing narrative and introduction of new, often unimportant and irrelevant characters got tedious after a while.


Book #112 of 2019

One response to “Review: Disappearing Earth by Julia Phillips

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