Friday, June 12, 2020

Book Review: Disappearing Earth

From Disappearing Earth, by Julia Phillips:

Open quoteZavoyko was kilometers past all that, making it the last district of their city, Petropavlovsk-Kamchatsky, the last bit of land before sea. “It was at the edge of the cliff where the ocean meets the bay.”” Disappearing Earth

A whodunnit about the disappearance of two girls in Kamchatka. But more a collection of vignettes of women of Kamchatka. Each character is fully fleshed out and not just someone to advance the plot. It's also the story of a place previously foreign to me.

Grade: A-

In Chapter 1, titled "August," two young girls, 11 and 8, are abducted on the street of Petropavlosk-Kamchatsky, Kamchatka. I've known of Kamchatka since childhood, but only as an undifferentiated territory on the board game Risk. It's on the edge of Siberia, across from Alaska. In other words, remote, which has always been part of the appeal to me. It's only land connection to anywhere is across mountains with no roads, and that connection is to Siberia. The only way in or out is by air or sea, and those routes leads to, well, Siberia, so it's not like anyone travels to Kamchatka.

I'm forever grateful to Julia Phillips for making Kamchatka a real place, with geography (mountains, volcanoes, forests, and the sea) and history (Soviet era and today), and culture (Russians and indigenous peoples). The individual people in Phillips' novel might be fictitious, but each is painted in such personal detail that I half expect to be able to look them up if I ever get to Kamchatka.

After the opening chapter detailing the abduction, the rest of the novel is given over to fleshing out the lives of other people, each of whom has some connection to the missing girls. Each chapter is titled with the name of a month, "September," "October," etc., all the way until "July" the next year. This works three ways. We get to see Kamchatka in all seasons. We get to feel how the abductions are slowly receding into the past, losing hope of ever solving the crime. And, three, each month is devoted to a different character and a different story.

This isn't a standard whodunnit. For long stretches, the investigation takes a back seat to everyone else's lives, which are separately told in each chapter. We meet two other girls whose friendship is broken up because of their parents' fear that children aren't safe anymore. We see the indigenous student who is torn between her Russian boyfriend and another indigenous student who just might win her heart. We see a young mother with a baby who feels trapped in her apartment without options. And another who feels trapped with her current partner in his shack that floods and freezes in winter. These characters are all brought to life. They don't exist just to push the plot along. There's a bit of wistfulness on the reader's part knowing each chapter end means saying goodbye to the character, more or less.

Each story makes passing references to characters we've come to know in other stories. One by one, these stories start to intersect until the climax brings many of them together in the distant village of Esso, where just maybe a lead emerges that might solve the mystery of the abductions. The novel could have ended with its penultimate chapter and I would have been satisfied. Turning the page to find still another chapter was a surprise, but that chapter also ties up the plot in a satisfying way, if not entirely the same way as I had thought just a few pages earlier. A lot of readers might be left either confused or unsatisfied. Not me.

Between the first chapter and the last, there's much to read here that is not whodunnit. Many of these chapters could stand alone as short stories. The structure of the whole is greater than its parts.

"Disappearing Earth" is available in hardcover and eBook formats from the Richardson Public Library.

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