Alfred A. Knopf/2019/272 pp/26.95 hardback
Reviewed by Katy Yocom
Set on the remote Kamchatka Peninsula in Russia’s far east, this debut novel, a National Book Award finalist, revolves around the disappearance of two young girls. Each chapter—titled after the months that pass with no sign of the vanished children—follows a different girl or woman whose life has been touched by their disappearance. The twelve chapters, seemingly disconnected, slowly cohere until the web of connections becomes clear.
More than the mystery of the missing girls, it is the exploration of these women’s lives that animates Disappearing Earth. Phillips writes with a perceptiveness that rivals that of the Russian masters, revealing a startling understanding of the human heart. Ksyusha is a university student whose inexperience causes her to mistake her white boyfriend’s jealousy for love, until she grows close to a doctoral student she meets in her indigenous dance troupe. Nadia burns to leave her ineffectual lover but may not be as prepared to break free as she thinks she is.
Among the most memorable is Zoya, who watches construction workers while she smokes on her kitchen balcony and plots a sexual dalliance with one, or any, of them as an escape from the oppressive isolation of maternity leave: “Tomorrow. She will give herself three hours. If she can find a sufficient excuse—a doctor’s appointment, maybe. No one will know. One afternoon, and then Zoya will return home, tell Tatyana Yurievna she’s sick, go to the shower and soap away the marks left by the workers’ fingers. She’ll wash slowly, wishing they could stay. And after that she will make it as Kolya’s wife and Sasha’s mother. No more visions of dead children. No desires to undo herself. After tomorrow, she will have enough to make it through.”
Not every chapter is a standout. A few early chapters serve nicely to establish the world, but their characters ultimately fade from memory. The storytelling ignites in Ksyusha’s chapter. From that point, again and again, Phillips illuminates the bright edges of women carrying on through the aftereffects of loss, driven by a gritty yearning to break free. She also portrays Kamchatka itself: the city where the girls disappeared; the traditional villages of the rural north; and the commerce between Russian and indigenous ways of life on the peninsula.
Phillips’s accomplishment is to create that rarity, a novel of suspense driven by character rather than plot. Yet its construction is nearly flawless, a deft build to a compelling conclusion. Phillips has built in rich rewards for the reader who reenters the novel: moments of danger and irony that only a second reading will reveal, and the chance to linger in a world, and a series of lives, realized with uncommon depth.
Katy Yocom is author of Three Ways to Disappear, a Barnes & Noble Top Indie Favorite, winner of the Siskiyou Prize for New Environmental Literature, First Horizon Award, and other prizes. Her words have appeared in LitHub, Salon.com, Terrain.org, Necessary Fiction, American Way (the American Airlines in-flight magazine), and elsewhere. She serves as associate editor of Good River Review and associate director of Spalding University’s School of Creative and Professional Writing. Find her online at katyyocom.com.