BOOK REVIEW: Disappearing Earth by Julia Phillips


A tightly-wound mother has a troubling doctors’ appointment. A new couple find their relationship tested by a camping trip. A young woman engages in infidelity. Two cousins reconnect at a New Year’s Eve party. What if all of their lives are intricately connected without them even knowing it?

In remote Kamchatka, Russia, two young girls are kidnapped in broad daylight. Despite the efforts of their mother, a witness and the region’s police force, the pair disappear without a trace, leaving their community in fear and confusion. Over the course of a single year, the people of Kamchatka find themselves drawn deep into the mystery, their lives influenced in subtle, and sometimes not so subtle, ways by the tragedy. Old ethnic and cultural tensions flare, relationships are tested, and families are strained perhaps beyond repair.

Julia Phillip’s Disappearing Earth turns the mystery genre on its head. Each chapter unfolds from a different character’s point of view, and for nearly 200 pages of the book the case of the disappearing girls takes a backseat to the interiorities of the lives of complete strangers. But woven throughout each chapter is the feeling that the disappearance has awoken something in the people of Kamchatka, an unnamed discomfort or impulsiveness, a burning need to live life now. Through the eyes of a police detective, an overprotective mother, a university student and many others, readers learn about the beautiful and harsh land of Kamchatka, about the tensions between Northerners and Southerners, and about the disappearance of another girl years before.

Disappearing Earth is a masterclass in plot, pacing and character development. Each chapter could be read as a standalone short story, but together they create a narrative about love, loss and life in one of the world’s most complicated landscapes. Phillip’s beautifully demonstrates how tragedy can work as both a paralytic and a spur, causing some to resist change while others embrace it wholeheartedly. Loss, even when remote, can trickle down from person to person, affecting them in shocking and unexpected ways.

You believe that you keep yourself safe, she thought. You lock up your mind and guard your reactions so nobody, not an interrogator or a parent or a friend, will break in. You earn a graduate degree and a good position. You keep your savings in foreign currency and you pay your bills on time. When your colleagues ask you about your home life, you don’t answer. You work harder. You exercise. Your clothing flatters. You keep the edge of your affection sharp, a knife, so that those near you know how to handle it carefully. You think you established some protection and then you discover that you endangered yourself to everyone you ever met.
— Julia Phillips, Disappearing Earth

Despite revolving around a crime, Disappearing Earth isn’t a story about evil or even really fear. It doesn’t focus on the psychology or motives of the perpetrator and it doesn’t linger on troubling details of the crime itself. Disappearing Earth is a story about community, about connection, about the impact other people have on our lives even when we don’t notice it. When each character’s chapter ends you’ll find yourself wishing for more of that characters’ story. But the novel mirrors real life by offering us only short glimpses into their lives. It’s like talking to a stranger in a grocery store or briefly catching up with an old friend, a short burst of a reminder that other people’s lives are every bit as intricate as our own.

Disappearing Earth is easily one of my favourite novels of the year. It’s wholly original setting and dynamic take on an exhausted genre make it incredibly binge-worthy. I’d highly recommend this novel to anyone stuck in a reading rut, and of course to mystery and drama lovers.