I’ve said it before, but it bears repeating. The more glowing reviews a book gets pre-pub, the higher the expectation. Disappearing Earth is the latest.
Though this book is billed as a novel, I found it to be more a collection of short stories, with each chapter focused on a separate woman who may or may not know the others. All live on the Kamchatka Peninsula, a remote area in Northeastern Russia. The author, who is American, lived there for two years while she was researching and writing the book. Indeed, location is a character here, and Julia Phillips does a masterful job painting its picture for the reader.
Chapters are titled by month. In the first, “August”, two sisters, ages 11 and 8, who have spent the day alone in a barren beach area while their mother works, accept a ride home from a man in a black car – and are never seen again. The disappearance of these two little girls is, in theory, the mystery that keeps the plot moving, the thread tying all of these stories together, in the style of, say, Elizabeth Strout’s Olive Kitteridge.
At least, that was one of the things the reviewers raved about. Oh, lovers of this book cry, but the girls’ disappearance deeply affects each of the other characters. I did not find that. I found the girls’ disappearance to be incidental to the predicaments of most of those others.
Don’t get me wrong. There is brilliance here. Each of the stories stands alone. Taken together, they create a haunting picture of the perilous life of a woman living in Russia between the fall of Communism and the rise of Putin. It isn’t a pretty picture. This is a dark book, certainly not one I would have read mid-pandemic if my book group hadn’t been discussing it.
The author is talented, and this is her first novel. I’ll be interested in seeing what she writes next.