Disappearing Earth by Julia Phillips
Published by Scribner, 2019
My rating: ⭐ ⭐ ⭐
Though I had been pre-warned to go into this expecting something that erred more towards literary fiction than your typical thriller, I can’t deny I was still left a little perplexed by the way the book has been presented and marketed. Words like, ‘propulsive’, ‘compelling’, and ‘riveting page-turner’ adorn the cover, and the basic setup has all the hallmarks of an addictive whodunnit: two young sisters are kidnapped, and we see the ripple effect this crime has on their remote Russian community.
In reality, this book is very much a slow burn – to the extent that I actually found some sections a bit of a slog to get through. The supposed lynchpin of the novel – the disappearance of the young girls – takes a backseat for the vast majority of the novel, barely even mentioned in most chapters. It serves more as a plot device for Phillips to explore the themes this book really set out to tackle: the engrained racism, misogyny, and homophobia that cause certain communities to close ranks and cast suspicion at those considered ‘other’. In particular, the book is concerned with the hypocrisy of the hostility shown towards a country’s indigenous population, when their culture has been so marginalized that they are made to feel like the intruders.
The main stumbling block that stopped me from fully investing in the narrative was how disjointed it was. This was due in large part to the sheer number of point-of-view characters we follow – a different one in every chapter. Some are directly linked to others; some marginally so; others are highly removed from the main story arc and are never so much as mentioned again. For me, the most interesting and successful chapters by far were the ones that opened and closed the book. It seems no coincidence that these are the only chapters that focus directly on the core plot point. The former follows the sisters themselves on the day of their kidnap – an opening chapter that was phenomenally well executed; tense, anxiety inducing, and heartbreaking all at once – while the latter follows their mother almost a year after their disappearance, as clues to their fate finally start to fall into place.
Though a couple of seemingly disparate plot threads and characters did gain additional context in the final chapter, creating a considerably more impressive and satisfying bigger picture, a few too many chapters along the way just felt extraneous to me, with almost every subplot introduced in these narrative off-shoots remaining unresolved.
Ultimately, the book ending up feeling more like a series of loosely interconnected short stories that placed this community, its many prejudices, and the daily sorrows of its people under the microscope. That, in itself, is an interesting enough setup with plenty of scope for Phillips to explore her themes and show off her excellent prose. It’s in that respect (and feel free to call me cynical) that the thriller-esque framing came off predominantly like a push to make the book more marketable.
This is one of those reviews that feels more negative than I’d like it to, simply because I went into the book with high hopes of loving it. Phillips is a talented writer who explores complex themes with the nuance they warrant, and presents her characters as realistically flawed and human. The narrative structure may not have worked for me in this instance, but I will certainly keep an eye out for whatever she does next.
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