Sometimes, the beginning of a book is so disturbing and resonant that you have no choice but to keep turning its pages. Such was the case for me as I read Julia Phillips’ Disappearing Earth, a beautiful novel that is more like a collection of connected short stories about an outpost of Russia called Kamchatka. The book’s lavender and light blue cover depicting two figures walking at the base of towering waves is both soothing and confusing, perfectly conjuring the terror and the banality within its pages.
The novel’s fulcrum is the disappearance of two sisters after an unknown stranger tricks them into helping him to his car and accepting a ride home. Instead of that, he swiftly takes their phone and drives them into darkness. This abduction is not for the frail of heart, as it triggers every repressed fear we have of being unsafe and helpless or of losing someone we love to such an unbearable act of faceless violence.
Yet even within this terrifying opening scene, an odd kind of serenity and inevitability permeates as if to say, in this place, things unfold as they will and no one can stop them or understand them. The ensuing chapters progress month by month, shining a light on a number of different mostly domestic situations in which women confront smaller-scale challenges, to little effect. Try as they might, the women that populate this disappearing earth leave no footprint, make no lasting sound. In the end, while the Golosovsky sisters and another character named Lilia literally disappear from sight, they are not so different from the various Kamchatka women who fade away over the course of their everyday lives.
Phillips is a deft writer, an American who lived in Kamchatka on a Fulbright fellowship and came to know it well enough to bring her readers there through these compelling stories of everyday people who surprise us with their familiarity. Ultimately, it is the place itself that is most captivating – a place where reindeer herders sleep under the stars, where bears drive quarreling lovers together, and where thoughts about girls gone missing nudge people to appreciate, if fleetingly, what they’d otherwise surely take for granted. Unpredictable, peculiar, and haunting, Disappearing Earth offers an enchanting picture inside a frame of horror.