The Kamchatka Peninsula is as far east as you can go in Russia. Set in the North Pacific Ocean, it is about the size of New Zealand but only has about 400,000 residents. Its isolation and beauty make it unique, as does its ethos – a juxtaposition of Russian culture, indigenous tribes, and the legacy of the Soviet Union. This unique environment is the setting for Disappearing Earth, which is a mystery set within a series of overlapping short stories.
On an August afternoon by the sea, two sisters, ages 8 and 11, accept a ride from a stranger and disappear without a trace. In the months following, Phillips tells the stories of twelve different women, all connected to the crime in some way. There is a young Native woman, at university in Petropavlovsk, struggling with her controlling boyfriend. A bored policeman’s wife looks desperately at the world around her, seeking escape. A Native family in the north wonders why the authorities do not take the disappearance of their daughter as seriously as that of the two Russian girls. In slice-of-life vignettes, we see the women’s struggles with family, societal restrictions, sexism, and racial prejudice, all written in beautifully detailed prose.
Reviewers have called this book a “literary thriller,” but “thriller” might a stretch given how we normally define thrillers. Yes, there is a mystery, and the solution does not arrive until the very end of the book, but the novel is more of a multi-character study. However, if you’re looking for exceptional writing, stunning insight, and a completely unique setting, Disappearing Earth is a great choice.