In Disappearing Earth, author Julia Phillips transports the missing girl trope to a unique location. On the Kamchatka Peninsula in Eastern Russia, life is hard. It combines both modern conveniences like cell phones, and long-established behaviors like misogyny. So actually, life for the women in this story isn’t so different from other parts of the world. Still, Phillips’ location choice makes me want to know more about the region.
Phillips starts with the missing girls in the first chapter. Then she uses a different woman in each following chapter to build the story in circles around the girls’ disappearance. It’s like a pile of string, yarn, or rope. Some lines intersect, while others just sit in the vicinity of another. What a challenging story structure to use, especially in a debut novel.
Each character’s life illustrates a different part of Kamchatka social realities. Phillips includes college students, indigenous people, villagers, city dwellers, career women, descendants of Russian settlers, mothers, daughters.
If you’re asking how she does all this in a book that’s less than 300 pages, you’ve hit on the good news and the bad news. The good news is she manages to make the story compelling and nuanced. The bad news is you never get to sink completely into any one woman’s story. Working together, the pace and constant perspective shifts create a melancholic vibe.
Phillips tells a complex and moving story, even in its brevity. Yet, I’m wary of books where each chapter spins to a new main character, especially when they do so only once. My preference is to dig more deeply into a character’s psyche, motivations, and actions.
Each chapter pulled me along, depositing me into another part of the story. Although the author moved past a character, I still wanted to know more of their story. What happened to that marriage? Was she okay after the procedure? It’s hard for me to let characters go. It felt like hearing an argument at the next restaurant table over and never knowing how the conflict gets resolved.
That said, Phillips does tie some of the story lines together in the end. As I listened to the audiobook, I began to think, “That dancer from an earlier chapter must be here in this chapter too.” Or “Oh, this is the mother who visited her daughter previously.”
I have strong reservations about structure of Disappearing Earth, even though the writing was strong. But if you like having a view into the lives of women around the world, add this one to your list.
An aside about my reading experience
Disappearing Earth is my IRL book group’s January pick. We meet right after the New Year, which means I’m getting a jump on this one. Our group of women choose 8-10 books every few months, and then vote on them to determine our final picks. For the record, I didn’t vote for this one even though I knew about it prior to making my picks.
Listening on audio challenged my ability to make the connections between characters and story arcs. So, I’ve requested the print book from the library. I want to be clear, especially for our book club discussion. But again, if Phillips had focused more tightly on fewer characters, I wouldn’t have to do this. It makes me think I should have started originally with a print version. So take that for whatever it might mean to you …