Disappearing Earth by Julia Phillips. 2019. A.A. Knopf.
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.
Why Disappearing Earth Matters
The setting, themes, and structure of this work all make it worthy of classroom study. And now that it’s a finalist for the National Book Award, there’s added clout to this highly original text. Before reading Disappearing Earth, I’d never heard or read anything at all about Kamchatka - a Russian peninsula composed of a complicated cultural quilt. It’s so important to offer books that feature regions of the world too often neglected by our American worldview. Additionally, this setting allows for the opportunity to discuss nationalism, immigration, prejudice, and racial tensions perhaps without the defensiveness that can come from discussing these same issues in students’ own communities.
Disappearing Earth is also a great classroom pick because of the work Julia Phillips does to complicate and push back against the “missing girl” trope. Students who are familiar with true crime entertainment like Serial and The Ted Bundy Tapes may know a lot about this particular cultural fascination without ever thinking twice about it. Disappearing Earth gives readers the chance to think critically about why we fetishize these missing girls and the realities experienced by the people who know and love these girls. This exploration would be interesting enough on its own, but Disappearing Earth goes further by depicting other ways women can go missing from their own lives. Whether it’s suppressing desires to please a partner, remaining in a bad relationship out of fear, or repressing their sexuality because of cultural norms, the women in this book diminish themselves for the sake of others. This theme isn’t absent from literature, but the way Phillips uses it is original and provocative.
Finally, the book’s structure is quite different from most of the literary texts students read. Phillips constructs it to be more like a collection of short stories than a novel. Some students may initially find this frustrating because the narrative is disjointed. This style, however, provides a lot of opportunity for analysis and discussion as students compare the narrative style of various chapters as well as the development of the primary story.
Themes and Social Issues: fetishization of missing girls, motherhood, sacrifice, gender and power, self-confidence and self-esteem, cultural conflict, nationalism, sexual repression.
Literary Features: This book reads more like a collection of interconnected shorts stories than a novel. Readers are introduced to side characters who become point-of-view narrators in subsequent chapters, offering an original and effective strategy for character development. While in some ways the plot revolves around the two missing girls, these girls are both characters and symbols for the many ways in which women can go missing from their own lives.
Pairs Well With: In Cold Blood, Helter Skelter, Anna Karenina, The Awakening
Content Warnings: The book contains depictions of verbal and emotional abuse. These scenes are disturbing, but not graphic and are essential to the overall thematic project of the book. While some moments are hard to read, they ultimately offer an essential perspective on the problem of the suppression of women.
Grade Level Recommendation: 11th-12th
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