EARLY IN Michelangelo Antonioni’s film L’Avventura (1960), a beautiful Italian woman named Anna disappears during a boating trip off Sicily. While searching for her, Anna’s boyfriend and her best friend fall in love and start an affair. Frustratingly, Antonioni never reveals what happened to Anna. For this, and for the film’s slow, empty scenes, L’Avventura was jeered at when premiered at the 1960 Cannes Film Festival. But within a few days, his peers were calling it a masterpiece. It’s not about what happened to Anna, they realized, but how her disappearance brings out the unimaginable in those closest to her, and how it reveals an Italian society brimming with menace, its men little more than beasts capable of the most disturbing sexual violence.
Something similar seems to be going on with Julia Phillips’s exceptional debut novel, Disappearing Earth. In the first chapter, two sisters — Aloyona and Sophia Golosovskaya, aged 11 and eight — are kidnapped from the center of Petropavlovsk-Kamchatsky, the only city on the Kamchatka Peninsula, in Russia’s Far East. A few chapters in, you get the feeling that the girls will never be found. After all, as their mother later tells herself, missing children do not return. Missing girls are dead girls.
Like L’Avventura, it seems that Disappearing Earth is not really about what happened to the Golosovskaya sisters, but how their disappearance affects the people and communities on Kamchatka. Rather than stay with the search for the sisters after their kidnapping, Phillips immediately pulls back to apparently irrelevant female characters, moving from one to the other in each subsequent chapter — one chapter for each month over the year, after the sisters go missing. We see how the disappearance of the Golosovskaya sisters displaces the friendship of other girls their age, as they’re no longer allowed to be out of the house. It disturbs the relationships of couples in their 20s, as possessive boyfriends demand their girlfriends keep in constant contact, requiring them to check in several times throughout the day. It makes people suspicious of each other. Blame each other. Become cynical. The kidnapping must have been their mother’s fault, many think, since she’s single and wasn’t watching them properly.
The girls’ disappearance also accentuates the more nuanced aspects of the peculiar Russian mentality. One of my favorite Russian words is sudba, which means fate, or predestination. For Russians, everything that happens in life is either sudba, or ne sudba. It’s either meant to be, or it isn’t meant to be. And ot sudbi ne udyesh is also popular phrase: you can’t fight fate. For instance, when one character in the novel receives news of her husband’s death, she says out loud: “This is fate.” She continues: “Our suffering is fated.” Suffering, too, is intrinsic to the Russian worldview. As Phillips writes, “This world was built for people to suffer.” This could be the motto of Russia.
In a rather xenophobic society, it’s not surprising that the disappearance of Golosovskaya sisters also brings out people’s latent racism. The white Russians on the peninsula suspect a dark-skinned foreigner kidnapped the girls, some Uzbek or Tajik migrant worker. “This never could have taken place in Soviet times,” one bigoted mother says. “You girls can’t imagine how safe it used to be. No foreigners. No outsiders. Opening the peninsula was the biggest mistake our authorities ever made.” And yet the racism goes both ways, as the native people who dwell in the northern towns distrust the whites too, referring to them as foreigners. Along with the racial divide, the kidnapping also exacerbates the urban-rural separation. When a native girl in the north disappeared a few years earlier, the police in Petropavlovsk-Kamchatsky hardly gave it any attention. But everyone knows the faces of the Golosovskaya sisters, as they’re plastered all over the peninsula.
The girls’ disappearance also encourages a longing for the good old days of the Soviet Union. During the USSR, resources were lavished on Kamchatka, with many military bases and construction projects aimed to build up a secure outpost against the United States, just east across the Bering Sea, and people over 40 recall it as a time without crime. Before the fall, children were raised in “a strong home, an idyllic village,” and “a socialist nation of great achievement.” But “that nation collapsed. Nothing was left in the place it had occupied.” After the fall, communities splintered, “making them easy places to be forgotten, easy places to disappear.”
Phillips lived on the Kamchatka Peninsula — on a Fulbright researching this book — and the landscape not only plays a character in Disappearing Earth, as many settings in good novels do, but it acts as part of the plot itself. Cut off from the world by its geography, Kamchatka might as well be an island, as the only way out is by boat or air — the northern route to the mainland is severed by icy mountains and tundra. The roads between the settlements of the peninsula are few, some of them only exist in the winter when they’re pounded out of ice; others are dirt, and washed out most of the year. Vast and harsh, the land itself is ready to swallow people up — not just people, that is, but females. Because what ultimately emerges in Disappearing Earth is how dangerous it is to be a young woman today in Russia, not only Kamchatka.
At a New Year’s Eve party, for instance, Masha — who grew up in Kamchatka but now lives in St. Petersburg — tells her friend Lada that she recently broke up with her girlfriend. “You can’t say that here,” Lada responds. “You could get killed.” Lada thinks the drunk men at the party might do something to Masha if they find out she’s a lesbian. But it’s not only them: “Neighbors […] will report a girl, even a smart girl, with a girlfriend. The police will hurt you, if they get the chance.” Yet regardless of sexual preference, one mistake can cost a woman her life. After all, the Golosovskaya sisters made themselves vulnerable simply by walking alone, and look what happened to them. A Russian woman must always remember: “If you aren’t doing what you’re supposed to, if you let your guard down, they will come for you.”
On a subtler level, Disappearing Earth exposes the structural sexism inherent in patriarchal societies, as there are many teen pregnancies on Kamchatka, and many young women in the novel must deal with scandal and shame. And regardless of age, marriage, and devotion, the men abandon the teenagers after impregnating them, leaving the girls to give birth and raise babies alone under the community’s judgmental eyes. Understandably, many of these Kamchatka women become hard and jaded. Oksana, the only witness of the kidnapping (echoing my emphasis of sudba, she thinks it was “bad luck” that she walked by the Golosovskaya sisters at the moment of their abduction), perhaps sums up this mentality best:
You believe that you keep yourself safe, she thought. You lock up your mind and guard your reactions so nobody, not an interrogator or a parent or a friend, will break in. You earn a graduate degree and a good position. You keep your savings in a foreign currency and you pay your bills on time. When your colleagues ask you about your home life, you don’t answer. You work harder. You exercise. Your clothing flatters. You keep the edge of your affection sharp, a knife, so that those near you know to handle it carefully. You think you established some protection and then you discover that you endangered yourself to everyone you ever met.
By taking us through the year after the sisters were kidnapped, from month to month, chapter by chapter, character by character, slowly spiraling back to the Golosovskaya family, Phillips is able to strike at so much of what ails not only Russia but also most tradition-bound areas all over the world today. Disappearing Earth is similar to L’Avventura in this regard, but this satisfying novel is ultimately very different from that frustrating film. So far, Disappearing Earth appears to have universal praise, already being called a masterpiece. While that could be a stretch, Phillips has certainly woven a sophisticated and powerful literary thriller; the stitches of her language make you go, Damn, that’s good. Long tracks of dead forest look like “thousands of bones pushed up from their graves.” When we first meet him, the kidnapper’s body “looked carved out of fresh butter.” One character’s “heart had been fragile, its chambers shifting as easily and dangerously as volcanic earth.”
And yet, it’s the ending that makes Disappearing Earth an absolute knock-out, an ending that can’t be described without borrowing some of Phillip’s own language: it peels open your chest, cracks back your ribs, grips that muscular organ, and squeezes out the stuff we read fiction to feel.