When you think of Russia, you probably conjure images in your mind of the Kremlin, Putin, or even the Russian ballet. I do to, and I’ve actually been to Russia a few times. However, as the greatest landmass in the world, Russia has more to offer than just Moscow. Today, I will review the thriller Disappearing Earth by Julia Philips, which takes place in Russia’s Far East in a region known as ‘Kamchatka.’ If you’re interested in an exciting tale in an unknown land, please, read on for a spoiler-free overview of this interesting tale.
On a late summer’s day, young sisters Alyona and Sophia take a walk along the water. Alyona, the elder of the two, tells her younger sister the curious tale about the city that disappeared in the water. Afraid that the story may give Sophia nightmares, Alyona makes her sister swear not to tell their mother about the story. However, Alyona’s concerns that Sophia may spill the beans becomes the least of her problems when the girls meet an injured man along the water who offers them a ride in his car. Gracious for a lift that should get them home about twenty minutes faster than the bus, the girls accept and get into the man’s car. This small act leads to the investigation of the year, as the case of the Golosovskaya girls becomes the talk of Kamchatka.
The story is broken down into months, starting from August when the girls disappear. Each month features a different female narrator who offers her own story of her life in Russia’s Far East. Although the book seems to randomly jump from event to event, each story relates in some way to the case of the missing sisters. Along the way, the reader becomes acquainted with young Olya a school-aged rebel, Ksyusha and Alisa, cousins from the Russian reindeer-herding village of Esso, Zoya, an unhappy wife to her police officer husband, and many other women young and old. Characters and storylines intersect at times. I was taking notes while reading, I encourage you to do the same lest you miss out on the significance of an interesting crossover.
Different aspects of Russian culture are passively, yet routinely, addressed throughout the story. A recurring theme was the tensions described between ethnic Russians, indigenous Russians, and Central Asian migrants. At a few different points, Russian characters voiced their suspicions of migrants in a disparaging way that was accepted by other characters. Additionally, indigenous characters were quick to remark that “Russia” (the officials in charge and the government) care more for its white population than for the indigenous population in the Far East. This antagonism was brought front and center when the characters discuss how the police treat the missing girls’ investigation with more diligence than they treated the disappearance of an indigenous teenager years before. Another point that was highlighted in most stories was the richness and importance of Russia’s indigenous cultures. At different points in the novel, culture was put on display through dance classes, festivals, and the speaking of the indigenous languages.
In the backdrop of the stories, the author sprinkled little tidbits about the political situation in Russia. In particular, the author mentions the corruption of United Russia (Putin’s political party), the depreciation of the ruble, and the war in Ukraine. With this contemporary political landscape, some of the characters also expressed their views on the situation. From the older characters, we hear that the Soviet Union was a socialist nation of great achievement and that Russia today is made worse by policies that forsake its citizens by allowing for inordinate corruption.
Overall, I quite enjoyed this book. While the overarching story is the search for the missing girls, the book is broken down into little vignettes that tell small, amusing tales that also give the reader insight into Russian culture. If you are interested in thrillers, Russian culture, or literature, I would recommend that you give this book a try.
Happy reading 🙂
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