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Disappearing Earth (2019)

by Julia Phillips

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6323726,574 (3.92)73
One of The New York Times 10 Best Books of the Year National Book Award Finalist Finalist for the National Book Critics Circle John Leonard Prize Finalist for the Center for Fiction First Novel Prize A Best Book of 2019: Entertainment Weekly, The Washington Post, NPR, Kirkus, AV Club, Vanity Fair, Variety, Esquire, Jezebel, Real Simple, The New York Post, Town & Country, Barnes & Noble, Library Journal, CBC, BookPage, BookBub, Book Riot, USA Today National Best Seller "Splendidly imagined . . . Thrilling" --Simon Winchester"A genuine masterpiece" --Gary Shteyngart Spellbinding, moving--evoking a fascinating region on the other side of the world--this suspenseful and haunting story announces the debut of a profoundly gifted writer. One August afternoon, on the shoreline of the Kamchatka peninsula at the northeastern edge of Russia, two girls--sisters, eight and eleven--go missing. In the ensuing weeks, then months, the police investigation turns up nothing. Echoes of the disappearance reverberate across a tightly woven community, with the fear and loss felt most deeply among its women. Taking us through a year in Kamchatka, Disappearing Earth enters with astonishing emotional acuity the worlds of a cast of richly drawn characters, all connected by the crime: a witness, a neighbor, a detective, a mother. We are transported to vistas of rugged beauty--densely wooded forests, open expanses of tundra, soaring volcanoes, and the glassy seas that border Japan and Alaska--and into a region as complex as it is alluring, where social and ethnic tensions have long simmered, and where outsiders are often the first to be accused. In a story as propulsive as it is emotionally engaging, and through a young writer's virtuosic feat of empathy and imagination, this powerful novel brings us to a new understanding of the intricate bonds of family and community, in a Russia unlike any we have seen before.… (more)
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» See also 73 mentions

Showing 1-5 of 37 (next | show all)
My impulse at the end was 5 stars but I knocked it down to 4 because of the improbability of the ending. It's very effective and powerful, but so unlikely.

I loved the writing and the construction; the chapters seem self-contained and mostly disconnected but are very much thematically related and merge together as they near the conclusion. It's an uncommon structure that succeeds, for me, in capturing the ambiguity and piecemeal nature of a missing persons case like this one. The snapshots are limited but inform each other enough to complete the circle.

Different. Very recommended.

(Summer reading: a book set in another country.) ( )
  beautifulshell | Aug 27, 2020 |
The novel starts with a couple of little girls being abducted. Each chapter is titled for a consecutive month after that and focuses on different people somehow affected by the disappearance. Many of the characters are not very sympathetic and I found it really hard to engage with them as the book jumped randomly around from group to group. However, it was interesting to learn more about life in a big town (Petropovlosk?) in the Kamchatka peninsula, and about the tension between the ‘Whites’ (as the Russians are called) and the different native descendants. Also an overarching feeling amongst people who remember the Soviet Union of a loss of greatness, and a descent into crime and moral decay. Glad this one is finished. ( )
  Matt_B | Aug 26, 2020 |
Set on the island peninsula of Kamchatka Russia, this is an intertwining story of people all affected by the disappearance of two young girls. The first chapter sets the gripping scene. Two young girls are lured into the car of a strange man. The following chapters at first seemingly unrelated focus on various people on the peninsula. A major character in one chapter can later show up as a minor one and vice versa.

The reader also learns of another young woman who has disappeared. At eighteen, Lilia was very petite and looked much younger. Her mother, an indigenous Russian, believes she became involved in some sort of trouble and has been killed. Various acquaintances believe she has left the area due to her wild reputation. The disappearances seemingly have nothing to do with each other.

At first the Russian police appear to be actively following leads for the young girl. The disappearance of Lilia, however, is different - only rumors spread and nothing official is undertaken. The reader soon becomes familiar with the setting of Russia after the fall of the Soviet Union. Nothing is repaired, immigrants arrive causing suspicion, plumbing doesn't work, alcohol is everywhere, and there is constant pull between the old that some want to return to and the new which the younger people accept.

This is an interesting book on many levels. The portrayal of the lives of many of the characters presents an everyday look at life on this far eastern part of Russia. The culture of many indigenous peoples is becoming modernized and melded into the culture of the times. (Young university students learning ethnic dances, etc.). Gender roles are almost unchanged as many young women struggle to raise their families without the emotional and sometimes economic support of fathers. Family structures are shaken. Prejudice underscores everything.

A cultural "fair" brings many of these characters together and out of clear circumstance, the perpetrator is discovered. The story is a mystery and a rare look at a part of Russia I didn't even know existed. Great writing.

I was thankful for the list of characters in the front and the map of the area. The names are very unfamiliar and without that, it would have been difficult to keep characters straight. ( )
  maryreinert | Aug 16, 2020 |
I experienced/read Julia Phillips’s Disappearing Earth in its audiobook version. The book is narrated by Ilyana Kadushin, an experienced narrator of many previous audiobooks, including the popular YA Twilight series. Interestingly, as her name indicates, Kadushin is herself of Russian ancestry, lending an authenticity to her pronunciation of all the Russian surnames and place-names in the book. But, best of all, she is a great storyteller and very easy to listen to.

Julia Phillips has had extraordinary success with Disappearing Earth, especially considering that it is her debut novel. The New York Times bestseller even went so far as to became a finalist for the 2019 National Book Award. The story is set on a remote peninsula in the Russian Far East, a part of the world that is said to have one of the highest concentration of active volcanos anywhere. Kamchatka is, in fact, so remote that it is basically inaccessible by land, and is home to a mixture of Russians and an indigenous group of people known as the Even People. The bulk of the peninsula’s 315,000 population is concentrated in the capital city but there are much smaller native villages several hundred miles to the north. Phillips sets her novel in the capital and the much smaller native village called Esso. Remarkably enough, the author lived in Kamchatka as she researched her novel firsthand.

It all begins with the kidnapping of two little girls who are playing on the beach. Alyona and her younger sister, Sophia, disappear pretty much without a trace except for one witness who thinks she saw them getting into a shiny black car with a large blonde man. As you would expect, the girls’ parents are devastated by the loss of their daughters and the uncertainty of their fate, but life has to go on. Everyone understands that because the girls do not turn up within the first twenty-four hours of their disappearance, they are most likely already dead. Within weeks, the police have pretty much given up the search and are waiting for the winter thaw so that they can begin a search for the bodies of the two little girls. The only one who refuses to give up is their mother.

There are thirteen chapters in Disappearing Earth, each of them narrated by a revolving cast of female characters who, taken together, give a clear picture of what life in Kamchatka is like for women. And it is not a pretty picture. None of the women appear to be much happy with the lives they live there, lives they correctly believe to be second class to those of their husbands and boyfriends. Readers get a clear message, too, that the indigenous population of Kamchatka is generally looked down upon by the Russians who now live there. So much so, that the disappearance of a native girl a bit older than Alyona and Sophia is quickly written off as being simply the case of a teen runaway.

Bottom Line: Disappearing Earth is a highly atmospheric novel with a deeply felt sense of place, one in which readers will easily immerse themselves. What did not work so well for me is that the “middle” eighty percent of the book is used only to illustrate the ripple effect that the kidnapping has on various secondary characters – all of whom seem already to hate their lives. The girls disappear in the first pages of the book, and the case does not advance again until its final two chapters. I found myself growing more and more impatient until I finally realized that this is not intended to be a mystery at all. ( )
  SamSattler | Aug 15, 2020 |
Well-done. The story opens with the abduction of two small girls in Kamchata. The bulk of the novel, using the abduction as a loose link, describes the lives and relationships of people living on the peninsula in its largest city and outlying locales. The character studies are like short stories and rich in depictions of diverse people. I learned that this part of Russia has an indigenous population, many of whom herd reindeer on the tundra. Beyond, Russian there are several languages heard there. The descriptions of the land with its harsh climate, mountains, tundra and geology (volcanoes and hot springs) gives a vivid sense of this remote land.

The final chapter returns to the abduction. Without revealing its ending, it was handled quite satisfactorily. ( )
  stevesmits | Aug 4, 2020 |
Showing 1-5 of 37 (next | show all)
...the mystery (which turns out to have quite a few twists; it's worth reading until the very end) isn't everything, either. As Phillips has said in interviews, her book is a means of exploring the violence in women's lives, violence in many forms: The aforementioned widowing, which occurs when a man dies in a car accident on an icy road. Domestic violence in all its abusive forms. Abduction, rape, keeping secrets. As the many characters live through the calendar year, they appear in each others' stories, bit by bit. If you're paying attention, you may figure who took the girls.
 
There will be those eager to designate “Disappearing Earth” a thriller by focusing on the whodunit rather than what the tragedy reveals about the women in and around it. And if there is a single misstep in Phillips’s nearly flawless novel, it arrives with the tidy ending that seems to serve the needs of a genre rather than those of this particularly brilliant novel. But a tidy ending does not diminish Phillips’s deep examination of loss and longing, and it is a testament to the novel’s power that knowing what happened to the sisters remains very much beside the point.
added by Lemeritus | editNew York Times, Ivy Pochoda (pay site) (May 14, 2019)
 
The ending of “Disappearing Earth” ignites an immediate desire to reread the chapters leading up to it: incidents and characters that seemed trivial acquire new meanings. The novel’s title comes from a scary story that Alyona tells her sister in the very first chapter, about a village on a bluff overlooking the ocean which is suddenly washed away by a tsunami. This story will be retold by the novel’s close, just as the novel will retell itself. What appears to be a collection of fragments, the remains of assorted personal disasters and the detritus of a lost empire, is in truth capable of unity. For the heirs of all that wreckage, discovering that they have the ability to achieve this unity—that they have had it all along—is the one great act of detection required of them.
 
Storytelling is a major thread here, with the telling of stories starting and ending the book, and appearing throughout. Disappearing Earth is closer to a traditional novel than Elizabeth Strout’s Anything is Possible or Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio, but its use of storytelling functions in much the same way, each chapter a story unto itself, the stories layered on top of those that came before, the threads and themes accruing as the book builds. The book never utilizes a point-of-view more than once. One of the downsides of this type of novel, of course, is that in not returning to characters and their particular stories, the reader may feel dissatisfied. In later stories, we catch glimpses or hear whispers of what’s happened to earlier characters, but there is a suspension here, a feeling of loss. This structure, though, nicely speaks to the loss of the girls, and allows that sense of incompletion to underscore the possibility that there may not be an ending at all, much less one that is fulfilling.
 
Storytelling is a major thread here, with the telling of stories starting and ending the book, and appearing throughout. Disappearing Earth is closer to a traditional novel than Elizabeth Strout’s Anything is Possible or Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio, but its use of storytelling functions in much the same way, each chapter a story unto itself, the stories layered on top of those that came before, the threads and themes accruing as the book builds. The book never utilizes a point-of-view more than once. One of the downsides of this type of novel, of course, is that in not returning to characters and their particular stories, the reader may feel dissatisfied. In later stories, we catch glimpses or hear whispers of what’s happened to earlier characters, but there is a suspension here, a feeling of loss. This structure, though, nicely speaks to the loss of the girls, and allows that sense of incompletion to underscore the possibility that there may not be an ending at all, much less one that is fulfilling.
 
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To Alex, my dar, my ¥ap
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Sophia, sandals off, was standing at the water's edge.
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One of The New York Times 10 Best Books of the Year National Book Award Finalist Finalist for the National Book Critics Circle John Leonard Prize Finalist for the Center for Fiction First Novel Prize A Best Book of 2019: Entertainment Weekly, The Washington Post, NPR, Kirkus, AV Club, Vanity Fair, Variety, Esquire, Jezebel, Real Simple, The New York Post, Town & Country, Barnes & Noble, Library Journal, CBC, BookPage, BookBub, Book Riot, USA Today National Best Seller "Splendidly imagined . . . Thrilling" --Simon Winchester"A genuine masterpiece" --Gary Shteyngart Spellbinding, moving--evoking a fascinating region on the other side of the world--this suspenseful and haunting story announces the debut of a profoundly gifted writer. One August afternoon, on the shoreline of the Kamchatka peninsula at the northeastern edge of Russia, two girls--sisters, eight and eleven--go missing. In the ensuing weeks, then months, the police investigation turns up nothing. Echoes of the disappearance reverberate across a tightly woven community, with the fear and loss felt most deeply among its women. Taking us through a year in Kamchatka, Disappearing Earth enters with astonishing emotional acuity the worlds of a cast of richly drawn characters, all connected by the crime: a witness, a neighbor, a detective, a mother. We are transported to vistas of rugged beauty--densely wooded forests, open expanses of tundra, soaring volcanoes, and the glassy seas that border Japan and Alaska--and into a region as complex as it is alluring, where social and ethnic tensions have long simmered, and where outsiders are often the first to be accused. In a story as propulsive as it is emotionally engaging, and through a young writer's virtuosic feat of empathy and imagination, this powerful novel brings us to a new understanding of the intricate bonds of family and community, in a Russia unlike any we have seen before.

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One August afternoon, on the shoreline of the Kamchatka peninsula at the northeastern edge of Russia, two girls--sisters, eight and eleven--go missing. In the ensuing weeks, then months, the police investigation turns up nothing. Echoes of the disappearance reverberate across a tightly woven community, with the fear and loss felt most deeply among its women.

Taking us through a year in Kamchatka, Disappearing Earth enters with astonishing emotional acuity the worlds of a cast of richly drawn characters, all connected by the crime: a witness, a neighbor, a detective, a mother. We are transported to vistas of rugged beauty--densely wooded forests, open expanses of tundra, soaring volcanoes, and the glassy seas that border Japan and Alaska--and into a region as complex as it is alluring, where social and ethnic tensions have long simmered, and where outsiders are often the first to be accused.

In a story as propulsive as it is emotionally engaging, and through a young writer's virtuosic feat of empathy and imagination, this powerful novel brings us to a new understanding of the intricate bonds of family and community, in a Russia unlike any we have seen before.
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