Although it may seem that every square inch of the earth has been mapped, there are still places that are mysterious. The Kamchatka Peninsula is one such place. You’ve seen it on a map, extending like a swollen appendage from the northeastern edge of Russia into the Pacific Ocean and the Sea of Okhotsk. Maybe you’ve wondered about the people who live there. Does anyone live there?
Of course, people do live in Kamchatka, both in real life and in Julia Phillips’ powerful debut novel. There are those from the indigenous and the white Russian population. The book opens when two little white girls are snatched from the seaside by a creep. The rest of the book concerns both the search for these two girls and the mystery of how they could have vanished on a peninsula all but cut off from the rest of Russia by a mountain range.
The book’s many characters are introduced in the preface, which calls to mind all those classic Russian novels with sprawling casts. But at the same time, Disappearing Earth is utterly contemporary. Cellphones are as inescapable in Kamchatka as they are anywhere else, even though they’re frequently out of range.
Phillips’ focus is on her female characters. There are the missing Golosovsky girls and their desperate mother; unhappy schoolgirls; a new mother going out of her mind with boredom; and a bitter vulcanologist with a missing dog. We hear from a native woman whose own daughter disappeared years before, as well as from her other daughter and her daughter’s children. Most of these women brush or bump up against each other, connected, sometimes tenuously, by the disappearance of the Golosovsky girls. The men in their lives aren’t so much useless as they are in the way. The cops give up the search, and husbands, fathers, boyfriends and brothers just don’t get it.
Besides the deep humanity of her characters, Phillips’ portrayal of Kamchatka itself is superb. Has there ever been a novel, even by Dostoevsky or Tolstoy, set in such a strange, ancient, beautiful place, with its glaciers and volcanoes and endless cold? It’s a place where miracles might happen—where what is lost can once again be found—if you jump over a traditional New Year’s fire in just the right way. Phillips’ stunning novel dares to imagine the possibilities.