Disappearing Earth by Julia Phillips
Two young girls, sisters, go missing after a day playing on the beach outside the largest city on the Kamchatka Peninsula. A dog-walker claims to have seen them get in a dark vehicle with a man but even that is in doubt. All anyone knows is that they are gone and it shakes the community to the core.
The story progresses over the course of a year. Each chapter is another month focused on a different person. The land is truly a character in and of itself with many faces: a mirror of the diversity of the people including indigenous tribes and Russians remembering life under Soviet rule. As each month goes by the reader can’t forget the two missing girls who started the tale; their disappearance resonates through every narrative in one way or another.
The author helpfully includes a cast of characters in the beginning of the book because even though there aren’t a lot of characters sometimes a character glimpsed in one chapter will become the focus of another. Having all these stories which tell the story of the area is important for not only knowing the land and the people but also to solving the mystery of what happened to the two sisters.
The writing is spare and the chapters are brief but the author really gets into the hearts and minds of her characters. Women are the glue of the narrative in the linked stories. Their struggles and their fears are the core of the novel and fans of character studies and literary fiction will be pleased. Those wanting to understand a land very different from our own will enjoy learning about the culture while also learning about the mistrust of outsiders who are, ironically enough, indigenous people. That’s not to say the mystery gets a backseat. Phillips does not disappoint on that front either. The clues are there, but will you see them? Will you figure out what happened to the sisters? And is there more than one missing girl that the peninsula should be looking for?