It seems like an exaggeration to describe a book as devastating, but Disappearing Earth fits the bill.
Set in Russia’s Kamchatka peninsula, Julia Phillips’ novel explores families, biases, fear of immigrants, and the pain of loss through a variety of characters whose lives touch at the margins following the disappearance of two small girls from the downtown district of the closest large city.
After the sisters go missing, we are given small glimpses into the daily existences of a number of people who are tangentially related to the ongoing search in the weeks and months that follow: a school administrator, a local police detective, a photographer, a college student, a volcanic researcher and more.
The tragedy that befalls one family (which is a single mother and the two girls, now gone) influences everyone in the area differently. Many wish that the peninsula’s borders were still closed, “We were safer that way,” they mutter, harkening back to life under Communist rule.
The implicit judgment of families with only one parent… the perceived dangers of the city to those who have never ventured outside of the peninsula… the deep and unique pain felt by family members whose loved ones are perceived dead… the dual longing to be a mother and yet not be a mother… Phillips does a remarkable job expressing feelings that many have experienced but never divulged. She has an uncanny knack for turning a phrase in a way that is both poignant and overwhelming. The power in her expression is somehow held in both what is said, and what goes unsaid.
“What’s the type of girl to do anything?” one of the female characters asks, challenging her male friend who is making an assumption about how girls think and act. That line struck me with its insubordination; one woman sticking up for the rest.
So much about Disappearing Earth was satisfying, brilliant, and striking. As I read one particular chapter regarding a female scientist and her devotion to her dog, I actually had tears rolling down my face. By the final page, which I read while hunched over and feeling tense, I felt as if I had been on a journey with these characters–one in which I learned a lot about myself, and how similar many people actually are if they let go of pretense.