Petropavlovsk-Kamchatsky is the largest city on the Kamchatka Peninsula of Russia, an otherwise desolate area of volcanoes, mountains, and hot springs, dotted with villages of indigenous populations. Until the Soviet collapse, Kamchatka was a Soviet military zone, and the peninsula still has no roads that connect it to mainland Russia.
Many of the characters in Julia Phillip’s debut novel, Disappearing Earth, came of age in the time “between Communists’ rigidity and Putin’s strength,” and remember when travel restrictions were raised after Soviet collapse. “Kamchatka’s residents could finally explore their own land.”
Phillips, a Fulbright Fellow and an American, studied Russian literature and spent time in Kamchatka, exploring the area during a dogsled race, and learning about the region’s native reindeer herders.
Phillips’ new novel weaves together stories from across the peninsula that are all linked by an initial tragedy: two young Golosovskaya sisters, Sophia who is eight and Alyona who is eleven, are too trusting of a stranger who offers to give them a ride home from the city center. They had been walking on along the beach without their mother, journalist Marina, who we meet near the novel’s gripping conclusion.
Through the perspective of the other characters, we learn that the girls disappeared, sparking many different theories about what could have happened to them, especially since there’s no easy way to get off the peninsula without someone noticing. Had they been killed? Had their father who lived in mainland Russia arranged a secretive kidnapping?
Expertly structured and told, the stories reveal the disconnect and tension between the peninsula’s indigenous people and the white Russians. The sisters’ disappearance causes a young girl to lose her best friend because of a xenophobic mother. Natives of the northern villages complain that the media gives much more attention to the white girls’ disappearance than to the disappearance of a teenage girl from the northern village of Esso, who the police concluded just ran away. One young mother lusts after construction workers across from her apartment building, while her policeman husband suspects them in the kidnapping simply because they’re outsiders.
But the book also comments on the vulnerability of girlhood, love, and friendship in a region driven by fear.
“Some people don’t care if you’re special. They will punish you anyway. Neighbors, for example, will report a girl, even a smart girl, with a girlfriend. The police will hurt you, if they get the chance… The Golosovskaya sisters, who, walking alone, made themselves vulnerable — that one mistake cost them their lives.”
Entwining tales of suffering and anxiety, disappearance and insecurity, denial and recovery, Disappearing Earth spans one year on the Kamchatka Peninsula, each month telling a new heartbreaking story. More than a crime novel, the book questions how a girl, an entire region, a culture, could vanish into thin air because no one’s paying attention.
Disappearing Earth by Julia Phillips
Published May 14, 2019