Disappearing Earth is medley of stories in the lives of various women living in the isolated Kamchatka peninsula. Kamchatka is situated on Russia’s northeastern coast, and it’s a region that I think most Western readers would not be familiar with. (I certainly wasn’t. When I think of the gigantic country of Russia, my mind can only summon up two kinds of settings, an urban center like Moscow or St. Petersburg, and the frigid reaches of Siberia.) These stories take place in and around socially-conservative coastal towns, quaint colleges, on mountain hikes, or among the modern descendants of the nomadic tribes who herded reindeer in Kamchatka’s hardscrabble wilderness.
No matter their disparate backgrounds, these characters have a lot in common with each other—and with Western readers. They listen to Rhianna on their smartphones; they have frenemies; they debate whether to cut ties with old college friends, or old high-school boyfriends; they suffer through the baby-blues; they roll their eyes at their aging parents. The author, Julia Phillips, weaves in connections between some of these stories. The main underlying connection is the kidnapping of two girls, which happens in the first chapter. Throughout the book, the mystery of the kidnapping is a central theme, and a source of tension and reflection for several characters.
My favorite stories:
December: Ksyusha is a bookish college student of native Even descent. She thinks she’s happy sticking to herself and maintaining a long-distance relationship with her smothering boyfriend back home. But then her cousin convinces her to join a dance troupe practicing indigenous folk dances, and Ksyusha meets a boy who might throw her life into chaos.
New Year’s: Lada is celebrating New Year’s at a cabin with a bunch of other twenty-somethings when she is suddenly reintroduced to one of her closest friends from high school. Masha has ‘escaped’ provincial Kamchatka for cosmopolitan St. Petersburg. Seeing Masha again stirs up conflicting emotions about Lada’s present and her past.
April: Zoya is a housewife muddling through severe ennui and taboo daydreams of the immigrant laborers working outside of her flat. (I’m wondering if her smoking plays more of a role in the story than she realizes?)
This book reminded me a bit of ‘There, There’ by Tommy Orange, which is also a collection of loosely connected stories centered around a culture and a setting that you might not often think of. In ‘There, There,’ the book follows 21st-century Native Americans living in Oakland, California. Both novels end at a modern rendition of a traditional native ceremony. I have to say that I think the characters in Disappearing Earth were more distinct and easier to keep track of. The kidnapping mystery IS resolved by the end of the novel, and I have to say I was genuinely creeped out by the gradual reveal of it. I loved how Phillips weaved in earlier characters to bring the mystery to light, and I was impressed that she had made the characters memorable enough that I could say, ‘Oh! That’s that guy!” as each recurring character was brought into the story.