Women novelists have been ingeniously dismantling this convention of late, both within the crime-fiction genre (Gillian Flynn’s “Gone Girl”) and outside of it, as in Julia Phillips’s invigoratingly hard-to-classify new novel, “Disappearing Earth” (Knopf). Each of the novel’s thirteen chapters is told from the perspective of a different female character, beginning with eleven-year-old Alyona Golosovskaya, who is looking after her younger sister, Sophia, while their mother works during the day. At the beach, the two girls meet a man and, out of innocence and admiration for his magnificent car, accept his offer of a ride. This chapter, titled “August,” ends with him driving the panicked girls off to parts unknown.
How could Alyona and Sophia be so foolish, so untutored in the perils of stranger danger, and what sort of mother would allow her young daughters to wander around unsupervised? The sisters live in Kamchatka, a volcano-studded peninsula in the Russian Far East that is basically inaccessible by land. Dead-girl mysteries are often set in such sleepy, half-forgotten corners of the world: small towns, rural backwaters, suburbs that pride themselves on their tranquillity and safety. Dead girls don’t just force detectives to reckon with their own capacity for evil and virtue; they also cause them to turn over the rocks in insular communities and expose wriggling secrets to the light.
Several of the older characters in “Disappearing Earth” regard Kamchatka as a fallen paradise. “This never could have taken place in Soviet times,” one woman says, after the abduction of the girls becomes big news in the main city of Petropavlovsk-Kamchatsky. Anyone too young to remember those golden years, she insists, “can’t imagine how safe it used to be. No foreigners. No outsiders. Opening the peninsula was the biggest mistake our authorities ever made. . . . Now we’re overrun with tourists, migrants. Natives. These criminals.” When a child dares to ask, “Weren’t the natives always here?,” referring to indigenous ethnic minorities that face frequent discrimination, the woman dismisses this reality: “They used to stay in the villages where they belong.” The old regime provided both order and meaning, although who can say how much this woman’s memory has been rosied in retrospect? Later, she mourns “a whole civilization lost.”
Phillips titles the chapters (with one notable exception) for the months that follow the abduction, but the novel doesn’t much concern itself with the search for the girls. Instead, with each new character’s perspective it builds a portrait of a place. The characters include both ethnic Russians and natives, mostly members of the Even people, reindeer herders who live in Esso, a village to the north. As remote as this world is, readers will find it strangely familiar. Petropavlovsk uncannily resembles a small, overlooked city in the American West, with its old-timers praising the way things used to be, its restless youth dreaming of metropolitan glamour and escape, and the neighboring Indian reservation an object of disdain and official neglect.
One of the Even characters, a woman named Ksyusha, leaves Esso to attend the university in Petropavlovsk on scholarship while juggling a relationship with a Russian man back home. In the traditional-dance group she joins, she meets a Koryak boy who complains about how much more avidly the media have covered the case of the Golosovskaya sisters than it did the disappearance of an Even girl from Esso, three years earlier. Ksyusha remembers that incident well: she barely knew Lilia, the missing girl, but her vanishing “changed the course of Ksyusha’s life.” Afterward, her boyfriend drew closer, insisting on constant check-ins and scheduled phone calls. Ksyusha is grateful; she interprets his possessiveness as cherishing. (The reader, like Ksyusha’s roommate, will have another perspective.)
The disappearance of the sisters assumes different dimensions as it shapes and is refracted through the lives of the Kamchatkan women. For some, like the thirteen-year-old central character of the chapter titled “September,” it’s merely a remote catastrophe visited on strangers, until the fear it inspires gives her best friend’s mother an excuse to forbid the two girls to see each other. Others view it, as people often view such incidents, as a cautionary example of what happens to women and girls, mothers and daughters, who assume too much freedom. For Lilia’s restive older sister, saddled with two children and a husband who spends most of the year at sea, the tragedy stirs up an old disagreement: Lilia’s mother believes that Lilia was murdered; the sister insists that she escaped to “Moscow, or St. Petersburg, or Luxembourg.” (The younger people in the novel caress the names of foreign cities like rosary beads.)
Phillips’s characters fight to steer a course between the twin hazards of loss and captivity. A scientist, the only witness to the sisters’ abduction, believes she has fortified herself against disaster:
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 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.
The implication is that joining the global professional class can be nearly as exhausting and cheerless as playing the role of patriotic comrade. And even when you succeed you’re still a woman, and therefore untrustworthy. The police are skeptical about the scientist’s account of a man’s ushering two little girls into his shiny car. They decide that the sisters must have drowned, and the authorities begin trawling the bay.
In other chapters, young mothers chafe at the confinement of family responsibilities, craving the risks that their older counterparts dread. When this generation reminisces, it’s not about the sureties of life under the Soviets but about the freedom of growing up “in the brief reckless period between the Communists’ rigidity and Putin’s strength.” The wife of a police detective investigating the disappearance of the Golosovskaya girls spends her days caring for her infant, pining for her old job, fantasizing about the migrant workers on a building site that she can spy from her apartment balcony—the very men whose foreignness alarms her older neighbors. For her, the migrants, mostly Central Asians, possess “the power to take a woman, to transform her, to turn her life that was growing smaller all the time into an existence that was dark and mighty.” Another young mother leaves her boyfriend in Esso, planning to parlay her job at a local bank into an international transfer. The bank, she hopes, will whisk her away from Kamchatka and her boyfriend’s “garbage palace of a rental house,” with its broken radiator and ankle-deep puddles of freezing water. But she has only enough money to make it back to her parents’ house, little daughter in tow, in a village even more Podunk than Esso.
All of these characters are connected to one another, directly or indirectly, by the disappearance of the Golosovskaya sisters or of Lilia, even if few of them devote much thought to finding out what happened to the girls. The bank employee is Ksyusha’s brother’s girlfriend. A grief-stricken nurse in another chapter is the second cousin of Lilia’s mother. Each woman’s identity comes nested in enough apostrophe-riddled relationships to send the reader turning back to the list of “principal characters” that appears at the beginning of the book. That’s to be expected in a sequestered, provincial enclave, isolation being one of the qualities that appeal to crime novelists: all that shared personal history becomes a breeding ground for intrigue. But for Phillips the intricate web linking her characters—bonds that can suffocate, sustain, or expose—is not a mystery to be uncovered by a solitary detective. The official investigators in “Disappearing Earth” dither at the story’s periphery and come up empty-handed. It is the web itself that provides the solution.
A certain literary aesthetic would stop short of providing that solution, making “Disappearing Earth” more a collection of linked stories than a cohesive narrative. The fragments would be mournful and unresolved, offering a picture of Kamchatka as a grim place populated by the pitiably trapped and bereft. This is not Phillips’s game, although her intentions remain in doubt until the penultimate chapter, “June,” in which Marina, the mother of the missing girls, travels to a campground outside Esso for a “traditional festival in celebration of the region’s cultural minorities.” Throughout the novel, the characters have contradicted one another’s accounts on points large and small. Is Ksyusha’s boyfriend the prince she believes him to be, or the brute that her brother’s girlfriend dismisses as “about as agreeable as a feral white dog”? The truth may be dependent upon the viewer’s perspective, but at the festival, where several of the novel’s characters meet, something approaching a usable, shared version of reality will be cobbled together. And it will be assembled by those who notice what the authorities have overlooked or shrugged off.
The ending of “Disappearing Earth” ignites an immediate desire to reread the chapters leading up to it: incidents and characters that seemed trivial acquire new meanings. The novel’s title comes from a scary story that Alyona tells her sister in the very first chapter, about a village on a bluff overlooking the ocean which is suddenly washed away by a tsunami. This story will be retold by the novel’s close, just as the novel will retell itself. What appears to be a collection of fragments, the remains of assorted personal disasters and the detritus of a lost empire, is in truth capable of unity. For the heirs of all that wreckage, discovering that they have the ability to achieve this unity—that they have had it all along—is the one great act of detection required of them. ♦