Review: Disappearing Earth by Julia Phillips

This is a debut novel that’s received quite a bit of praise, but it was not quite as good as I hoped it would be.  Author Phillips is an American who decided to write about a very remote area in Siberia called Kamchatka.  Phillips received a Fulbright fellowship to live there in 2011, and she wrote her story from the perspective of the white and native people who live there.  This is a book that feels a bit more like short stories, only the characters are all loosely connected to each other – a format I feel I’m seeing a lot of these days (Bernadine Evaristo’s Girl, Woman, Other does this very well, and so does Elizabeth Strout).

This book has been marketed as sort of a mystery/thriller, and if you’re expecting that, you’ll be disappointed.  Nor is it about the environment, as some in my book club expected.  It’s more of a collection of short character studies where the area itself is the common thread. And the Kamchatkan peninsula is certainly a fascinating setting – it’s remote and isolated, threatening and at the same time beautiful.

It begins in a compelling way. Two young girls are kidnapped when they stop to help a young man and are lured into his car. The town is devastated, and the police paper the town in flyers.  Phillips then explores the lives of different families in the area, both white and native, young and old, educated and working class. 

There was a sadness and dreariness to many of these stories that didn’t work so well for me.  All the women have terrible relationships, and the only woman in the story who seems happy in marriage has both her husbands die on her.  There are recurring themes of women wanting to break free, to do something exciting, but in the end they settle for their reality, which isn’t always terrible, just depressing.  One of the common themes is endurance, and another common theme is the risk that women face when they get close to someone, whether that someone is a child, a husband, or a trusted friend. 

At times, I struggled to stay engaged and found the stories repetitive, and I also found myself distracted by trying to figure out the different threads that connect these characters to each other (family, co-workers, friends.).  There were promising stories that seemed to go nowhere, while other less interesting characters (like Max) had major roles in multiple stories. 

One thing that struck me in this book was the way Phillips writes about women and sexuality.  The women in the book spend a lot of time thinking about sex, wanting sex, and initiating sex – and it made me realize how rarely you really see female characters acting that way, which was refreshing.  In my book club we discussed whether this was a cultural difference in Russia, but because this writer is American, we really weren’t sure how much about this book was authentically Russian.  And that’s a major issue with this book.  It wasn’t clear how much the author had really represented the people living in this remote area of Siberia.  The book raises issues of how white people are treated compared to the native peoples, but their culture was rarely explored.  Some of my book club felt that the author deliberately focused more on the practicalities of daily life, like clothes and food rather than culture and beliefs. But aside from the harsh climate and remote location, we wondered whether this story could be told from anywhere. 

I felt Phillips wrote her best from younger voices – the two kidnapped girls, a college student in a native dance group, a young woman who struggles to relate to her family, and a teen at a New Year’s party who encounters a close friend. Those characters felt the most real to me, and their stories more emotionally powerful.  Maybe that has something to do with the author’s age.

Looking at the reviews, this seems to be a love it or hate it kind of book.  For the most part, it didn’t live up to my expectations, but many readers feel differently. 

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