ONE of the great things about books, as our teachers and family members had told us countless times in the past when we were children, is the ability of literature to transport readers to faraway places. It is through reading that we get to travel to real-world locales, such as the Sahara Desert or Tokyo, as well as completely made-up places, such as Hogwarts or Narnia.
‘Disappearing Earth,’ by Julia Phillips is one of these kinds of books for me. It managed to carry me to a place that I had never heard of before. Kamchatka, a peninsula in Russia, is the setting. Here, there are mountains and forests, as well as a cold ocean, that all come together to isolate the spot of land. There is a blend of races, whites and indigenous peoples, who intermingle and yet retain strained relationships with each other.
In Kamchatka, people can be found walking in the city of Petropavlask and people can be found camping in the forests. Salmon-fishing is a big deal. Children might help to herd deer with their grandparents while on their breaks from school. It is a beautiful and real place, and yet, to me, with my Guyanese/Caribbean/South American identity, it feels surreal in how utterly foreign and fascinating it is in the novel. The only thing that was not new to me was the sheer range of human emotions that were experienced by the characters.
Phillips’ story begins with two young girls, sisters, who are on their August vacation from school. They spend it mostly by hanging out in the city, close to the shore. In the opening chapter, the girls are on the beach. The older sister tries to scare the younger one by telling her a story of a village that was washed away by the sea. Before the end of the chapter, we find out that both girls have been abducted, stolen, from the coast, like the people in that one village who were all dragged out into the sea.
Although the opening might sound like something out of a crime novel, Phillips’ book is very literary, with a variety of focal points. The abduction of the girls sets off a chain of reactions that reverberates throughout Kamchatka, touching the lives of a variety of people. The author uses the catalyst of the abduction to introduce us to various women who live on the peninsula, giving each of the chosen a single chapter in which to tell her story, to air her grievances, to state her regrets, to chase her goals, and to say how the abduction of the children has changed, affected, or reinforced her opinions of the city, on men, on class, on race relations and on the role of women within the society.
In this way, through the foregrounding of the stories of a wide variety of women (mothers, daughters, wives, students, professionals, indigenous, white, rich, poor) who have been marginally or substantially connected to the missing girls in some way or the other, the reader is offered perspectives on womanhood, on what it means to be a girl or woman in the world, from girls and women themselves, and this structure, anthology-like, of devoting a single chapter to each principal character is something that I found to be both unique and powerful.
Although ‘Disappearing Earth’ is her debut, there is no doubt that Julia Phillips is an intelligent and talented novelist. It is not easy to write an entire novel where each chapter comes from the perspective of a different character, each of whom is only slightly connected to the other principals. There is a skill in the way that the author maintains tension and suspense throughout as we flit from the perspective of the wife of the detective in charge of the investigation to the lone witness who saw the girls walking to the kidnapper’s car, to a woman whose sister also vanished several years earlier, to the mother of the kidnapped girls, among the many others.
This story could have easily gotten out of control due to the multitude of voices, but it is through the writer’s impeccable, hard work that the novel remained tightly in her reins, firmly in her control, and this is what allows the readers to have such a controlled, tense, tightly written novel in the end.
Although it is well-written and it is a great read, ‘Disappearing Earth’ is certainly not a happy book. Most of the characters are unhappy. They all suffer in some way. Perhaps, though, that is one of the aims of the novel: to highlight not necessarily the plight of women, but, rather, their endurance, their perseverance, their ability to heal and recover, as well as their ability to help others recover, and the various other elements that are borne from suffering and conflict.
At face value, we may only see the struggles of these women, but the author’s intent is to also emphasise the strength that each of them possesses – the ability to make tough decisions, to fight back, to keep going, to dare, and, perhaps most importantly, as seen in the book’s earth-shattering ending, to hope. ‘Disappearing Earth,’ therefore, becomes not only a good read but an important read, a text that transports the readers into the lives and dreams of fully fledged female characters, in as much as it transports us to that wild and beautiful place, so far away from us, called Kamchatka.