Two little girls play by the sea in the spellbinding opening scene of the novel Disappearing Earth by first-time American writer Julia Phillips. The view of the tranquil beach sets little butterflies fluttering in the reader’s stomach in the anticipation of horror. As the scene unfolds, the most incredulous events are described in a most simple manner and you are shocked at the tragedy unfolding right before your eyes. The story moves on, other characters come swarming in, but the novel does not let you go; it keeps you hoping against hope, praying that things do not turn out the way they are set to be, and knowing that it cannot be otherwise.
The story moves from one set of people to the other while the two little girls remain a constant unifying theme — the reference against which all lives in the remote community of Kamchatka, in the eastern-most tip of Russia, are judged. We are never told directly as to what exactly has happened, but we can keep guessing. Each chapter is named after the month in which it is set, so you get a sense of the story trudging on slowly, and you keep turning the pages compulsively as you feel the turn of the screw. This is a remarkable novel that sets your teeth on edge and makes you question a whole lot of things which you realise had been simply assumptions.
As eight-year-old Sophia begins to move her sandal-less feet deeper into the grey salt water of the bay, her elder sister, 12-year old Alyona, can see the pebbles “breaking the curve of Sophia’s arches”, and she warns her not to go any further. The little girl pays no heed. From the very first sentences, the vividly recreated seascape begins to fill you with dread. The two girls play, tell stories and then move on from the water’s edge to head home when a seemingly innocent encounter changes everything. Turning from the sea to the town, the Golosovskaya girls are on their way to disappearance after they have been lured by a stranger into his car.
A novel by a first-time writer and set in the bleak and wintry landscape of Kamchatka is unlike anything else recent fiction has had to offer
The story, however, flows on swiftly, giving you as little breathing space as possible. It takes on tragic overtones as we meet a new group of characters, living a seemingly independent life with their own issues, but still connected with the opening story — as all lives are connected with each other in a small community reeling under tremendous pressure to adjust to sweeping changes in the world. Or perhaps nothing has changed in a world replete with crime, violence, distrust and misogyny.
Migrants are easy to blame for each crime and racial tensions run deep. Olya, Katiya, Lilia, Yegor and Chegga are depicted with their troubles and tribulations. One story leads to another, but you realise that a tremendously gifted craftswoman is at work here. What seem to be independent and unlinked stories are all connected with each other and, as the months move forward chapter by chapter, the story of the missing girls also keeps moving on and adding other people. As this story is not continued in a direct manner, you can conclude that the novel is not about the missing girls, but more concerned with the overall impact their disappearance has on different people, even those who were not directly related.
Finally, the novel reaches its culmination in a taut chapter as the mother of the two girls jumps over a ritual fire, moving from the old to the new. It consolidates the unique power of the novel as it avoids easy answers and simplified explanations. Powerful, rich and complex, the novel draws the readers into its vortex and offers bitter lessons on life, as the mother comes to realise towards the end of the book.
While the two girls can hold on to each other close to the end, all the mother is left with is a sense of “breathlessness.” “Terrible as it was — and it was, it was — it was all she had left to mother. She jumped.” You read on as your heart misses a beat. As the last chapter suddenly brings back the lost voice of the girls, the novel achieves a fascinating resolution which heightens all the suppressed tension, making you feel as though a bow has snapped, releasing the arrow towards its mark.
The novel is set in the bleak, wintry region of the Kamchatka Peninsula in Russia. Remote as the region is, there is mounting tension between the “native-born” people and the “white” folks who have come from Moscow and are trying to adjust to the changing times. The terrible crime against the two little girls makes them uncomfortable and, yet, they go on living their crisis-laden lives. Comforts in the distant city and periods from the past continue to haunt them. This is set against a remarkable landscape to which the author draws your attention through the smallest details and conveys a sense of nature at its most intense and terrifying. Through the depiction of separate individuals — particularly the young women struggling for their identity, sexual independence and the right to their own lives — a remarkable sense of the larger picture begins to emerge as all characters are visualised against a bigger frame, with remarkable narrative power, in a compelling manner.
Phillips lived for some time in the region which she describes and has laid claim to it with enviable creative force. She captures the inherent tensions of the community without turning them into exotic creatures or paper cut-outs. With this, her very first novel, she has managed to achieve worldwide recognition and great acclaim. Her novel’s unrelenting landscape and emotionally drained style made me think of Scandinavian noir at first, but then I realised that this book is in a class by itself. To read Disappearing Earth is to enter a different place; it is a different experience, totally unlike anything else recent fiction has had to offer. As children disappear and then the earth begins to disappear, this story will not let you go.
The author is a critic and fiction writer. He teaches literature and humanities at Habib University, Karachi
By Julia Phillips
Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, September 15th, 2019