Russia’s Kamchatka Peninsula, a long stretch of land in far eastern Siberia, is not exactly in Sarah Palin’s view, but it’s closer to Alaska and Japan than to the rest of Europe. One of the most isolated places on the planet, the Arctic tundra there is prowled by predators – human and otherwise – and it still supports herds of reindeer and the various native groups who depend on them. Mostly inaccessible – it was a closed military zone until 1989 – there are no major roads connecting it to the rest of Russia. Sparsely populated, the indigenous people are treated with disdain by Caucasian Russians. The main city is Petropavlosk, cold and bleak, but the ideal setting for “Disappearing Earth” (Knopf), a stunning debut novel from Julia Phillips. An unusual, skillfully created thriller, it’s also a deep dive into the culture of a place most people have probably never heard of, illuminating issues of race, culture, sexual attraction, and the transition from the U.S.S.R. to post-Soviet Russia.
In a land this remote, people go missing and stay missing. It’s the kind of place that could consume two little girls and never reveal the secret of their disappearance. That premise sets the stage for the novel and in the first chapter, sisters Sophia and Alyona, ages 8 and 11, are playing on a deserted beach, while their single mother is at work. They make the awful mistake of accepting a ride from a seemingly kind stranger. He has a beautiful new car and he tells them his leg is hurt and he needs help. Suddenly a lovely August day becomes every mother’s worst nightmare. The sisters vanish from their former lives and, for the most part, from the narrative.
This has the makings of a juicy whodunit, but the author, a seasoned journalist and travel writer who spent two years on the Kamchatka Peninsula on a Fulbright grant, does something more unique than that. She turns her story into a meditation on the lives of women in an extreme corner of the world, traversing generations and ethnicities, in the months that follow the kidnapping.
After Chapter One, the following 12 chapters each represents a month (August through July) in the investigation which appears almost unsolvable. Focusing on a disparate cast of women, from the developed coastal cities to the indigenous villages in the snowbound interior, all the women have a link to the sisters, some more than others, and each one harbors painful and mysterious secrets. “The Golosovskaya sisters, who, walking alone, made themselves vulnerable – that one mistake cost them their lives,” one of the women remarks. “If you aren’t doing what you’re supposed to, if you let your guard down, they will come for you.” That warning applies to all the women of Kamchatka, who yearn for something more than they have. For example, take Zoya, a new mother and the wife of the lieutenant investigating the crime. She has dangerous sexual fantasies. Or Lada, who wouldn’t dare look for a girlfriend in a place so prejudiced against homosexuals. There’s also a woman, searching for her dog, who might possibly be an eyewitness; as well as the missing girls’ own mother, Marina, crippled by panic attacks and despair. And there’s the daughter of a reindeer herder, at college in the city, who finds her domineering boyfriend coming down harder than ever. And, in a rural town, members of a native family, whose teenage daughter disappeared four years earlier, are concerned by the similarities and differences between their case and this one.
The book opens with a list of “principal characters” and a map and readers will be looking at both as they plunge into this world, which is so different from and, yet, so much like our own. As the connections between the stories pile up, you start to wonder – will there ever be closure about the young sisters? As the many characters live through the year, they appear in each others’ stories, little by little, and, if you’re paying close attention, you might figure out who took the girls.
Several of the older people in the novel think of Kamchatka as a fallen paradise. “This never could have taken place in Soviet times,” a woman says, after learning about the girls’ abduction. Anyone too young to remember those “golden years,” she asserts, “can’t imagine how safe it used to be. No foreigners. No outsiders. Opening the peninsula was the biggest mistake our authorities ever made … Now we’re overrun with tourists, migrants. Natives. These criminals.” When a child sheepishly asks “Weren’t the natives always here?” referring to indigenous ethnic minorities that face frequent discrimination, the woman scornfully replies: “They used to stay in the villages where they belong.” She remembers the old regime in the Soviet era providing order and meaning, and mourns “a whole civilization lost.”
Unlike a typical mystery, where the reader follows the detective or the victim or the killer, Phillips touches on all the dissimilar threads, only bringing them together at the end. Throughout the enigma of the girls’ disappearance, she wrestles with the complicated cultural questions, which resonate in any country, not just this small part of Russia. The mistrust of migrants. The rejection and misuse of the customs of the indigenous peoples. The battle between the older generation and the new. So specific, and yet so universal. Mainly “The Disappearing Earth” tells the stories of women all over the globe. Only the details are different.