Review: Disappearing Earth by Julia Phillips

disappearing earth julia phillips

Rating: ★★★★☆

Categories: Literary Fiction, Mystery

Disappearing Earth was another book chosen for the Squad Longlist, and I was very excited to read this slow-burn mystery set in Siberia. Although the blurb might imply this is a series of events started by the kidnapping of two sisters, this is less a plot-driven book and more about each of the characters. We get several different point of views and explore the motivations, fears, nostalgia, disillusion and loss of these people, who are connected to the kidnapping in one way or another, sometimes only very loosely.

Each chapter focuses on a different character, and this makes Disappearing Earth very much a slow burn, as we see month by month a snapshot of their lives. The author did such a great job in turning a narrator in one story seamlessly into a secondary character in another’s a few chapters later. Each character has a rich inner life, and is haunted by loss, uncertainty, societal pressure, judgment, by lack of options in such a remote place. Their dreams and aspirations often turn to nothing, and my heart broke so many times, even for characters I didn’t particularly like. This book was a beautiful exercise in humanity.

What I loved most was how almost every chapter ended just on the cusp of something emotionally huge happening: a life-changing decision, a surgery, the girls being taken to the kidnapper’s house etc, leaving the reader to find out what happens next through another character’s point of view, or to imagine by ourselves. The effect is that the chapters feel very haunting as you hope things turned out okay, that they made the best decision, but not really knowing. This was immensely interesting to read and got me thinking how easily we disregard another person’s pain, how self-centered and cold we can be, without meaning to.

I can’t speak for the representation of Siberia, the nostalgia for the Soviet days from some of the characters, the relationship between natives and white Russians etc, but the book did strike me as quite Western. Julia Phillips is American and lived in the Kamchatka Peninsula for a while, and I think she did a good job portraying the region and people respectfully, if bleakly, but of course it would be great to see a Siberian reader review it.

This was an incredibly atmospheric, bleak and beautiful read that left me very impressed. I look forward to reading more from Julia Philips in the future!

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