BOOK REVIEW: Loss, Recovery and Reconciliation in ‘Disappearing Earth’

GOOD Morning Wilton‘s book reviewer, Gayathri Kaimal, is a sophomore at Wilton High School and an avid reader who hopes to share her love of reading through her reviews. You can learn more about Gayathri on GMW‘s “Our Team” page. 

Julia Phillips’ debut novel Disappearing Earth opens with a chilling scene:  two sisters are playing on the beach. Alyona, the older sister, is telling Sophia the story of a tsunami that swallowed an entire town when they are approached by a strange man asking for help. He persuades them to come to his car under the guise of a hurt ankle and offers to drive them home. As the reader, we feel helpless–we know what will happen next and we are powerless to stop it.

However, the focus is not on the mysterious kidnapper or the manhunt, but rather on the far-reaching effects of this tragedy. Each chapter examines the kidnapping as told from the perspective of a different woman in the secluded Russian peninsula of Kamchatka:  a schoolgirl, a witness, a reporter, a university student, a single mother, the wife of a police detective, and finally, the mother of the missing girls.

Each character is fully realized and three-dimensional–a testament to Phillips’ ability to inhabit her characters and speak through their distinctive voices. The impact of the kidnapping takes different forms–while some stories are only tangentially related to the disappearance of the two girls, others completely revolve around the kidnapping.

For Olya, a 13-year-old schoolgirl, it leads to her losing her closest friend. “During gym this afternoon, they had jogged together like always. Olya made sure their feet matched. She could have run faster, but love meant making compromises. With the people that mattered, Olya did not want to be free.” After such a touching expression of Olya’s love for Diana, they are suddenly separated by Diana’s mother (reminiscent of Anne and Diana from Anne of Green Gables ).

For the family of Lilia, an 18-year-old girl whose disappearance several years before did not receive half as much attention, it dredges up old disputes.

For the scientist and lone witness, it serves as a reminder of the random, uncontrollable nature of tragedy. “It hurts too much to break your own heart out of stupidity, to leave a door unlocked or a child untended and return to discover that whatever you value most has disappeared. No. You want to be intentional about the destruction. Be a witness. You want to watch how your life will shatter.”

The backdrop of Disappearing Earth holds its own significance. Each character provides a glimpse into life on the peninsula, and Phillips uses these fragments to develop a vivid description of the setting.

For some, Kamchatka was once a sanctuary from outsiders, who they have deemed to be migrants and natives–a sanctuary that has now collapsed and become overrun with crime. “Opening the peninsula was the biggest mistake our authorities ever made,” one woman says, lamenting the loss of an idealized version of the old Soviet regime.

While the older women reflect on the “civilization lost,” the younger women look for an escape, dreaming of fleeing to foreign cities:  Zoya to run away from the monotony of her daily routine, Nadia to start a new life with her daughter in Istanbul or London, Lada to follow Masha to a place where she can be openly gay, and Natalia to break free from her obligations to her family. “Everyone looked better at a distance. Everyone sounded sweetest when you did not have to hear them talk too long…Loving someone close-up—that was difficult.” Tensions are heightened by the kidnapping, which is used as an excuse to lash out against the various minority groups.

However, Kamchatka is an essential part of the identity of these women, each representing a different part of the peninsula, from the city of Petropavlovsk-Kamchatsky in the south to the sparsely populated mountains of the North. Kamchatka is so isolated from the rest of the world that a large emphasis is placed on the relationships and dynamics that exist within the peninsula.

While the novel may seem like a collection of short stories connected only through their setting, the ending is cohesive and rewarding. In the final chapter, a cultural festival in Esso unites several of the main characters. We also hear the story about the tsunami once again, about villagers who work together in order to survive the catastrophe. “No one helps them but they help each other. Even though their town is gone, and all they see is water in every direction, they swim for land. We can make it, they say. We’re going to help each other the whole way.”

Disappearing Earth is a deeply moving reflection on the power of loss to shake a whole community and the difficult processes of recovery and reconciliation.

Take part in Wilton Library’s virtual book group discussion on Wednesday, Sept. 9, when the group, led by professional book discussion leader Susan Boyar, discusses Disappearing Earth by Julia Phillips. Space is limited and registration is required. Participants must have a Zoom account. An email link will be provided to all registrants a few days before the meeting. To register, visit the Wilton Library website. Any questions can be submitted by email.