“You believe that you keep yourself safe, she thought. You lock up your mind and guard your reactions so nobody, not an interrogator or a parent or a friend, will break in. You earn a graduate degree and a good position. You keep your savings in a foreign currency and you pay your bills on time. When your colleagues ask you about your home life, you don’t answer. You work harder. You exercise. Your clothing flatters. You keep the edge of your affection sharp, a knife, so that those near you know to handle it carefully. You think you established some protection and then you discover that you endangered yourself to everyone you ever met.”
Disappearing Earth by Julia Phillips is a story about humanity. How even if we like to believe we are far from our neighbors, different in every way possible, our basic communal instincts don’t allow us to entirely separate from the world around us.
This is shown with raw beauty as Phillips explores the lives of women in the small Russian community of Kamchatka in the aftermath of the abduction of two sisters. The disappearance of the young girls rocks the close-knit town as many wonder what could have happened to them. But the story doesn’t focus on the investigation as one might think.
In our interview with Phillips she said, “What I realized very quickly was that I wanted to tell a story of a group of people and not just an individual or a couple of individuals or, for example, the relationship of a victim and a perpetrator or a victim, perpetrator, and investigator. It felt insufficient and I wanted to capture what I was seeing around me and what I was learning and what was exciting to me about being in this place.”
She does just that as the reader is taken into the life of a different women, in a different month through each chapter. Spanning over a year, we learn of the ways this intrusive act of kidnapping has directly and often times, indirectly, effected other women’s lives. These women are struggling to escape, struggling to overcome shame and judgement, struggling to break free from others or even themselves. A single mother who’s lost her daughters, who sees the pity and scorn on the faces around her. A college student unwittingly stuck in an abusive and controlling relationship. A twice-widowed woman weighed down by grief and guilt. A woman who must hid her queerness, even among a room full of friends, for her own safety. Another missing girl, who is not white, who is naive and therefore not a priory in the eyes of the law.
The women in this novel are all of us. We have felt these emotions, this self loathing, this inability to take care of ourselves and protect our bodies. Although setting places a huge role in the story, beautifully and vividly rendered by Phillips’ powerful writing skills, the women of Kamchatka are everywhere. They are not just in Russia, miles and miles away from us. We are them, they are us.
This novel reminded me of the power of community, the way humans vibe off one another, the way we instinctually congregate together. And how one action creates a ripple effect.
By Julia Phillips
304 pages. 2019