Some books are easy to categorize: they’re mysteries, or they’re romantic comedies or they’re speculative fiction, or whatever.  Sometimes you can just read the description of a book’s plot and get a good sense of what kind of book it is, but sometimes the description doesn’t really do the book justice.  The description of Disappearing Earth, by Julia Phillips, talks about the disappearance of two young girls from a village in Kamchatka, on the eastern coast of Russia, and the aftermath of that disappearance, which made me think it was possibly a mystery (what happened to the girls? How is the issue solved?).  In fact, though, the book is not a mystery at all.  It’s better than that. 

Each chapter in Disappearing Earth is a sort of short story in itself, focusing on a different character or set of characters, linked together by their connection, however fleeting and however distanced, with the events of the opening story, where two young girls get into a stranger’s car on their way home from the beach and never arrive at their home.  

I freely confess that all I knew about Kamchatka before reading this book was that it was a place you tried to conquer in the game of Risk (and I had a general idea of where it was as a result of games of Risk as a child and teenager).  Phillips brings the peninsula to life, slowly and deeply, with characters from different social classes and ethnic groups interacting with each other. You can feel the tension between the indigenous people and the “white” people who live on the peninsula, between the city people and the rural ones, 

Some of the stories are more compelling than others (as is always the case with a collection of stories, linked or unlinked), but they all have in common a deep compassion for the main character, who is always a woman: the woman who witnessed the girls getting into the car, a teenager who’s suffering from the fears of the adults around her after the disappearances, the mother of one of those teenagers, facing a cancer diagnosis, a college student torn between her “white” fiancee and her indigenous roots, the older sister of an indigenous girl who disappeared as well, possibly running away, possibly abducted, the wife of the police officer who’s given up on ever finding the missing girls, and finally the mother of the missing girls.  They’re all compelling in different ways, and once I got the sense of how the book worked, that it wasn’t a linear narrative of a mysterious disappearance, I couldn’t stop reading.

If the book reminds me of anything, it reminds me of Let the Great World Spin, a book which I love for its breadth of views and its depth of compassion for all the suffering people touched by a single incident.  

If you’re reluctant to read this book because you’re afraid of reading about something horrible happening to two young girls, don’t let that stop you.  The book doesn’t exploit anyone, doesn’t dwell on terrible things (except as they’re imagined by the people who care about the missing girls), and gives you, in the end, something satisfying. 

Disappearing Earth is a beautiful, broad hearted book that’s well worth reading.  Give it a try.

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