Disappearing Earth, by Julia Phillips

5 Stars

I have fallen in love—with a book, a peninsula in Siberia, and most of all, with its native Even people.

Disappearing Earth, by Julia Phillips, opens with the abduction of two young white girls from a beach in Petropavlovsk on Russia’s Kamchatka Peninsula. Their fate is compared to an earlier tsunami that wiped out an entire town, while the police’s vigorous search for them is contrasted with the earlier disappearance of a native girl, whom they dismissed as a promiscuous runaway.

Long isolated from Western influences, Kamchatka is reeling from the collapse of the Soviet Union and the currency devaluations that followed. Older people, who still hang pictures of Stalin on their walls, wrestle with existential questions about whether freedom was worth what they perceive as a breakdown in values, while young adults resent their parents’ pensions, paid-for apartments, and free university educations. Simmering underneath, like the fault lines responsible for Kamchatka’s devastating earthquakes, lies a unique urban/ rural divide: Petropavlovsk is largely white, while remote villages, including Esso and its environs, constitute the traditional homes and grazing grounds of the reindeer-herding Even people.

Told through a series of interlocking stories, Disappearing Earth focuses on the lives and relationships of Kamchatka’s women and how the girls’ abduction impacts them. These women struggle with husbands and boyfriends, their roles in life, and most of all, with how they can better themselves in a society that seeks to relegate them to chain-bound roles: dutiful daughter; slut; and housewife/mother. Under these constraints, how does any woman—native or white—manage to live an empowered life free from violence?

Like reindeer on their circuitous annual journeys, over the course of a year we follow the compromises these women make with life. We meet a white housewife who fetishizes impoverished native construction workers, simply to escape the boredom of childcare. A native woman, caught between her traditional family and the sneering snobbery of her university classmates, carries on relationships with both a controlling Russian boyfriend and an intelligent native man who understands the salmon dances of their people.

The woman who lives the freest life is a lesbian who defies Russia’s dangerous homophobia and shares an apartment in St. Petersburg with her lover. After a painful break up, she returns to Kamchatka for a New Year’s Eve party, where she reconciles with a girlhood friend whom she has never forgotten—and to whom she has never before confided her homosexuality. Be careful, the friend whispers. The police can hurt you.

As a writer, reading Disappearing Earth evoked a flitter of despair: I have never hiked volcanoes, fumaroles, or glacier-carved lakes. I have never felt the ground tremble under thousands of reindeer hooves. I have never counted the stars in a Siberian night sky or heard the air hiss with the smoke of active volcanoes. How can my stories compare?

While I struggle to empower myself as a writer, I am so glad Julia Phillips brought me into the world of Kamchatka and its brave, resourceful women.

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