The first chapter of Julia Phillips’s superb debut, “Disappearing Earth,” begins with two sisters at the edge of a bay on a summer day. One wants to venture deeper, the other clings to shore, embarrassed by the childish antics of her younger sibling. By chapter’s end the sisters will have disappeared — kidnapped, it seems, by a man in a shiny black car. It’s a familiar setup in a wholly unfamiliar setting — the remote and beautifully bleak Kamchatka Peninsula in far eastern Russia.
What follows this abduction is a novel in the form of overlapping short stories about the women who are affected both directly and indirectly by the kidnapping. The purpose of these stories is not to unite a community around a tragedy as a less daring and more conventional narrative would have it, but to expose the ways in which the women of Kamchatka are fragmented personally, culturally and emotionally not only by the crime that jump-starts the novel, but by place, identity and the people who try, and often fail, to understand them.
It’s a well-worn cliché of book jacket copy to say that place is as important a character as any of the people in a book, and yet the women who populate Phillips’s novel are so intrinsically and intelligently identified with their region that it’s impossible to understand or even consider them without Phillips’s precise evocation of Kamchatka. She describes the region with a cartographer’s precision and an ethnographer’s clarity, drawing clear distinctions between the relative metropolis of Petropavlovsk-Kamchatsky in the south, where the sisters are kidnapped, the verdant town of Esso with its hot springs and wood cabins in the middle, and Palana, a tiny city of Soviet architecture nestled in a valley at the foot of the Koryak Mountains in the sparsely populated north.
Phillips introduces us to a cast of women who are emblematic of the ethnic and cultural conflicts of each region — Ksyusha, a reindeer herder’s daughter who is at university in the capital and finds herself torn between her controlling white boyfriend and another indigenous student she meets in a native folk dance troupe; Zoya, a bored policeman’s wife dangerously drawn to the Uzbek and Tajik immigrants who are doing construction work across from her apartment; Marina, the white mother of the missing sisters who travels to a cultural festival in the north where she confronts a Native woman whose teenage daughter also disappeared under similar circumstances but whose case sparked little interest.
As the novel progresses, the links between the stories and the women coil tighter in surprising and troubling ways. Sometimes the sisters’ disappearance is in the foreground but more often it lingers at a distance — an echo on the news or a remote unease that serves as a baseline refrain to the other tragedies, small and large, that permeate the narrative. It falls to Oksana, the sole witness to the kidnapping, to link the missing sisters to her own plight, the loss of her dog, and in doing so she articulates an anxiety common to the women of “Disappearing Earth”: “It hurts too much to break your own heart out of stupidity, to leave a door unlocked or a child untended and return to discover that whatever you value most has disappeared. No. You want to be intentional about the destruction. Be a witness. You want to watch how your life will shatter.” But these women are never granted such a vantage point.
There will be those eager to designate “Disappearing Earth” a thriller by focusing on the whodunit rather than what the tragedy reveals about the women in and around it. And if there is a single misstep in Phillips’s nearly flawless novel, it arrives with the tidy ending that seems to serve the needs of a genre rather than those of this particularly brilliant novel. But a tidy ending does not diminish Phillips’s deep examination of loss and longing, and it is a testament to the novel’s power that knowing what happened to the sisters remains very much beside the point.