A finalist for the 2019 National Book Award, Disappearing Earth starts when one August afternoon, on the shoreline of the Kamchatka peninsula at the northeastern edge of Russia, two girls 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.
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 ... all that shared personal history becomes a breeding ground for intrigue. But for Phillips the intricate web linking her characters 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 ... The ending ignites an immediate desire to reread the chapters leading up to it: incidents and characters that seemed trivial acquire new meanings ... 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.
... superb ... It’s a well-worn cliché of book jacket copy to say that place is as important a character as any of the people in a book, and yet the women who populate Phillips’s novel are so intrinsically and intelligently identified with their region that it’s impossible to understand or even consider them without Phillips’s precise evocation of Kamchatka. She describes the region with a cartographer’s precision and an ethnographer’s clarity ... There will be those eager to designate Disappearing Earth a thriller by focusing on the whodunit rather than what the tragedy reveals about the women in and around it. And if there is a single misstep in Phillips’s nearly flawless novel, it arrives with the tidy ending that seems to serve the needs of a genre rather than those of this particularly brilliant novel. But a tidy ending does not diminish Phillips’s deep examination of loss and longing, and it is a testament to the novel’s power that knowing what happened to the sisters remains very much beside the point.
...there is pleasure to be had in reading Disappearing Earth, even in the midst of such grief and despair. Phillips is a beautiful, assured writer, one who knows how to create fully-developed characters, a marvelous sense of place, and a constant forward momentum. We learn about this unfamiliar country, filled with interesting and complex characters, while seeing the echoes of our own world and ourselves on every page.