What answers could Alla Innokentevna have for her Marina might ask what it was like to see your child turn thirteen, or fifteen, or graduate from high school. How it felt to know, and not just suspect, that if you had been a better parent, more attentive, more responsible, then your baby would not be gone today. How to go on.
Disappearing Earth is quite an extraordinary novel. There is a missing persons mystery at the centre of the book, but no one should go into this expecting a typical mystery. Or a typical anything at all.
I love it when an author tries something different and it just works. Here, Phillips begins on the remote Kamchatka peninsula, in the city of Petropavlovsk-Kamchatsky, with two young girls accepting a ride home from a stranger and then going missing. The need to discover the girls' fate offers an immediate emotional pull, but their disappearance hovers mostly in the background for the many different stories that follow it.
And Disappearing Earth contains just that-- many stories. It can be read almost like a short story collection, with all stories alluding to or being affected by the missing girls. Phillips introduces us to many different characters, each one completely distinct, complex and sympathetic.
Natasha sent him back a selfie with her middle finger raised. Then she followed that almost instantly with a picture of herself lit by the lamp on their bedside table, her top lowered, her lips and cheeks spun by the low wattage into dark gold. The story of their marriage: a little love, a little rage, a lot of ocean water.
The author looks at small town fears and suspicions. The unusual and effective choice to tell each chapter from a different point of view allows for a bigger picture of this place to develop, as well as an intimate portrait of all the characters. It reminds me of Winesburg, Ohio in its scope and beauty, and a bit of Orange's There There in its interlinking but separate stories.
It was also beautifully atmospheric to me. I love books with a strong sense of place, and I feel like this can create a mood which permeates the entire novel. I should add that here this is probably at least in part due to my complete ignorance of this area of the world, both its geography and its customs. So to me it was a very new experience. I am curious what Russian readers will think.
Through so many different perspectives, we see how the disappearance of the girls affects everyone, and how this changes over time. The initial panic and fear of outsiders, the comparison to other disappearances, and the gradual fading from memory. I also found it very interesting how the author managed to comment on so many different issues - post-Soviet society, racism against natives, and homophobia, for example - without it becoming a book about said issues. The exploration of all these things rises organically out of the characters living their lives, and is never heavy-handed, preachy or judgemental.
It's a beautiful smart read for fans of "literary thrillers" and a thoughtful meditation on culture, race, sexuality, and small town politics in Russia after the fall of the Soviet Union. Between this and Miracle Creek, I am really falling in love with these complex character dramas with a mystery/thriller backdrop. I always used to say my favourite thrillers were those that focused on the characters and were rewarding even if you figured out the reveal. Well, I guess I found the perfect kind of book for me.
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