“Disappearing Earth” by Julia Phillips

Sberbank, Esso (via Google Maps)

Two young girls are snatched off a city street; the crime ripples through the wider community. A story that might have been set anywhere, but Julia Phillips sets hers in Kamchatka, one of the remoter parts of Russia’s remote Far East.

This might have been a foible or affectation—Phillips spent time in Kamchatka as a Fulbright fellow—but Disappearing Earth is nothing if not deft. Most notable, perhaps, is that Phillips has constructed her novel as a series of connected short stories, each one of which could easily stand on its own. There is no central narrative: the pieces come together through tangential connections. This is not just cleverness—and it is indeed very clever—for it allows Phillips to introduce a varied cast of characters of Tolstoyan dimensions. The structure renders her two-page character list at the beginning of the book unnecessary: it is easy enough to work out who is who as people drop in and out of each other’s stories.

The stories have a couple of characteristics in common, both of which—perhaps because of the fragmentation created by the multiple story structure—creep up on the reader unawares. The first is that the protagonists of the various stories are all women. Men appear, of course, but none of the stories is told from a male character’s point of view. Second, a good portion of the characters are Even or Koryak, Siberian tribal people who are referred to, with greater or lesser amounts of dismissiveness, as “natives”. Except for the odd mention of reindeer herding, yurts and traditional dances, they are however hardly distinguishable from the Russian characters; ethnicity aside, of course, they are Russian. Here, as elsewhere, Phillips’s understated writing and tangential approach to plot is such that this less-than-random distribution of characters seems natural and unremarkable until all of a sudden one realizes—quite a long way in—that was the point all along.

One is never sure where Disappearing Earth is heading, if anywhere at all. The title is a reference to a story that the elder girl tells her sister just before they are taken: a village up the coast was wiped out by a tsunami. It was only the complete absence of lights come nightfall that tipped the neighboring town off that something had happened. The feeling of impermanence, that something might happen, and that no one might notice or be able to do anything, pervades the book.

Phillips observes—and goodness, does she observe.

Disappearing Earth: A novel Julia Phillips (Knopf, May 2019; Simon and Schuster UK, July 2019)
Disappearing Earth: A novel, Julia Phillips (Knopf, May 2019; Simon and Schuster UK, July 2019)

The stories themselves are individual slices of life and human drama, from the relatively banal—a camping trip gone wrong, a co-ed’s confusion about relationships, a brother that only speaks of UFOs—to the more serious: random fatal accidents that devastate lives, a missing daughter and sister, a teenage pregnancy.

The setting aside, Phillips writes as an American: there is little sense that the dialogue is Russian in translation, nor do the characters have, on the whole, the sort of ineffable Russianness one finds in, for example, Kseniya Melnik’s collection Snow in May (also largely based in the Russian Far East). But Phillips observes—and goodness, does she observe. When a visitor brings “a box of chocolates, swirled dark and milk and white, each in the shape of a different seashell”, one knows which brand they are. Other observations, whether eyes “outlined in gunmetal powder” or the “saline pop” of red caviar, eaten from a two-liter tub with spoons, root the novel specifically in Russia.

sberbank-esso2The novel is clearly observed from life. Kamchatka is very sparsely populated: its 270,000 square kilometers hold only about 320,000 people, well over half of whom live in or near the capital Petropavlovsk-Kamchatsky. It is not just geographically remote: in Soviet times, it was a closed military zone. One of the other population centers that features in Disappearing Earth is Esso, reached by a 10 hour bus ride over a gravel road, a district capital. But it has a population of under 3000. So when Nadia, running away with her daughter from a dysfunctional relationship, thinks “Thank God for Sberbank”, her employer in Esso, I had to look it up—where else but on Google maps?—and there was a branch between two wooden fences.

It is evidently possible to read Disappearing Earth as a crime mystery…

While it is evidently possible to read Disappearing Earth as a crime mystery, it is less than obvious that this is what the book is or what Phillips meant it to be. Until almost the very end, the fate of the two girls acts more as a phantom or shadow over the lives of others than as a crime destined to be solved. Clever structure can’t be an end it itself, and isn’t here, for it allows Phillips to explore storytelling and characterization.

A typical whodunnit might have a detective, a sidekick and a few secondary characters: Phillips has as many protagonists as she has chapters. Rather than one plot, she has a dozen. The result is a rich novel of a place that is not as bleakly empty as it might first appear.

Peter Gordon is editor of the Asian Review of Books. He was in and out of (a somewhat less remote part of) the Russian Far East in the 1990s.