Review: 'Disappearing Earth' transcends mere crime novel

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"Disappearing Earth" begins one August afternoon on the Kamchatka peninsula in far northeastern Russia. Two girls, Sophia and Alonya, play at the water's edge before setting off for home. On their way, they stop to help a man who has injured his ankle. He offers them a lift home as thanks for their assistance. They are seen getting into a shiny black car - or was it blue? - by the only witness to the event, a woman walking a white dog.

By the end of the day, their distraught mother, Marina, reports them missing.

The story unfolds over the following year with an exploration of the impact the abduction has on different women. Some of the characters are front and center, like Marina, and Oksana, the witness, who is ravaged with guilt at her lack of action. Other characters are more peripheral, like Zoya, the wife of the police officer investigating the crime. Each chapter is a different month with a focus on a different woman. But their stories overlap and interweave. And always, in the background, lurks the shadow of the abduction.

Then there's Ksyusha, the university student from a remote native village in the north. Ksyusha's sister, Lilia, went missing four years ago. Everybody says she just left home, but questions remain.

In the penultimate chapter of the book — the month of June, almost a year since Sophia and Alonya were abducted — Marina travels north to visit a native festival. There, she meets Alla Innokentevna, Lilia's mother, who is running the festival. The closing moments of this chapter are heartrending and powerful.

"Disappearing Earth" is much more than a simple crime novel. It is a beautiful evocation of Kamchatka, its people and peoples. Phillips skillfully portrays the tensions between the native people, now largely confined to the north, and the settlers who live in the coastal towns. She deals with the customs and culture with respect, bringing this remote area to life, while weaving a wonderful tale that is rich and profoundly moving. This is a marvelous book.

Julia Phillips lives in Brooklyn. Phillips visited Kamchatka, the setting of "Disappearing Earth," as a Fulbright scholar in 2011. "Disappearing Earth," her first novel, was chosen as a finalist for the 2019 National Book Awards and was one of The New York Times' 10 Best Books of the Year.

"Disappearing Earth" is available at The Bennington Bookshop, or can be purchased online here: benningtonbookshop.com/book/9780525520412

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