Few Americans have traveled to Kamchatka in Russia’s Far East. A nine-hour flight from Moscow, the volcanic peninsula juts into the Pacific Ocean. In 2011, Julia Phillips journeyed there to study at Kamchatka State University as a Fulbright scholar. Clearly the people and place inspired her. The result is “Disappearing Earth,” her intense, evocative and haunting debut novel. The captivating book conveys the unique ethos of this remote region.
As the story begins, two sisters Alyona and Sophia Golosovskaya, 11 and 8, are walking on the beach near their home in the city of Petropavlovsk-Kamchatsky. Their mother writes for a Russian newspaper and is away at work. When the girls accept a ride from a seemingly friendly young man, they are kidnapped. The police search, posters appear, but the girls are not found.
The plot then shifts. Each subsequent chapter explores the ripple effects of the girls’ disappearance on the Kamchatka community. Clues appear about the identity of the kidnapper and the fate of the girls, but the outcome is not revealed until the final pages. The bigger mystery here is Kamchatka and the character of its people.
The peninsula has a distinct presence in the story. Phillips writes, “Air and sea were the sole options for leaving. Though Kamchatka was no longer a closed territory by law, the region was cut off from the rest of the world by geography. To the south, east and west was only ocean. To the north, walling off the Russian mainland, were hundreds of kilometers of mountains and tundra.”
Though the residents appreciate the natural beauty, living on the peninsula requires resilience and fortitude. Into this terrain, Phillips introduces a rich mosaic of interconnected characters whose lives are touched by the kidnapping. These Kamchatkan people all have their own struggles.
Valentina Nikolaevna is an administrator at the girls’ school with a health crisis and strong opinions: “This never could have taken place in Soviet times. You girls can’t imagine how safe it used to be. No foreigners. No outsiders. Opening the peninsula was the biggest mistake our authorities ever made.”
Oksana, a researcher at the volcanological institute, is the only person who witnessed the girls getting into the car. Her attempt to help the investigation only compounds her sense of isolation. Her unfaithful husband has left and her beloved dog has vanished.
Alla Innokentevna, the head of a cultural center in the northern village of Esso, is not Russian, but Native. Four years earlier, her daughter Lilia disappeared. A police investigation was perfunctory; authorities assumed Lilia ran away.
Marina Alexandrovna, the mother of Alyona and Sophia, leads a life filled with constant grief and persistent panic attacks: “She pled and sobbed on the evening news in an attempt to bring a breakthrough in the case. She was a fish ripped open for the reporting. Her wet gut spilled out,” Phillips writes.
Both Alla and Marina’s lives have been turned upside down by the loss of their daughters. Their earths have disappeared.
Phillips gives voice to the struggles of women navigating their increasing challenging daily lives in Kamchatka. They seek love and loyalty from boyfriends and husbands, but often experience disappointment or abandonment. Some fantasize about leaving the peninsula and establishing a new life in mainland Russia or Europe. Yet the bonds of family ultimately keep them in Kamchatka.
The relationships among the characters become clearer as the plot advances and the tension accumulates. The fate of all three girls is told in the story’s stunning conclusion. However, the novel’s power derives from the slow unveiling of its characters. They are isolated yet connected, like Kamchatka itself. Phillips’ great achievement in “Disappearing Earth” is that she convincingly transports readers into their world.
Katherine Read blogs at http://readsreading.blogspot.com
Written by: Julia Phillips
Published by: Penguin Random House
Note: Phillips appears at 7:30 p.m. June 5 at Green Apple Books on the Park in The City, at 1 p.m. June 6 at Book Passage in Corte Madera, and at 7 p.m. June 7 at Kepler’s in Menlo Park; visit http://www.juliaphillipswrites.com/events.html