Julia Phillips, Disappearing Earth (Scribner 2019)
Before the meeting: This month’s Book Selector happened to be at a dinner party with Kate Evans of the ABC’s Bookshelf when he was casting about for a book for us to read. She recommended Disappearing Earth, and I’m grateful, both to our name-dropping Book Selector and to Kate Evans. I loved the book.
The book is set in Kamchatka, a peninsula in the far east of Russia, that juts down into the Pacific Ocean north-east of Japan. The author’s acknowledgements mention that she visited Kamchatka twice while researching and writing the book. I would have been astonished to learn otherwise, because the locality is beautifully realised, from the southern city of Petropavlovsk-Kamchatsky with its majority ethnic-Russian population to the tiny villages in the north and their Indigenous peoples.
The story is told in thirteen chapters, one for each month of the year from August to July, with a short one in the middle for New Year’s. In August two little girls are abducted from the seaside of the city. We follow them until we know that they are being taken north, and then, with the end of the chapter, we lose sight of them. In the following chapters, the abduction is mentioned, sometimes as a barely remembered newspaper story, always as an unsolved mystery that creates unease, especially in women and the parents of young children. There is no way off the peninsula except by sea, and in spite of the evidence of a woman who witnessed the abduction (who has a chapter of her own), the investigating police pretty much decide that the girls drowned and the case is closed. What the reader knows, and most of the civilian characters fear, that the girls have been abducted and have probably been murdered, hangs over the many fragments of narrative like stormclouds.
As the book progresses, each chapter focuses on a new situation, so that it’s not even clear if there is a through narrative line. Perhaps we are reading a loosely linked collection of short stories, forming a over-arching portrait of a place, its seasonal changes, the tensions between Russians and ethnic minorities (another girl, a teenager from an Indigenous family in the north, disappeared some time earlier and the authorities and press have paid very little attention, as compared to the fuss over these two Russian girls). There’s also a kaleidoscope of women’s relationships, beginning with the two little girls at the start – the older one resents having to look after her little sister, but when trouble strikes she is completely committed to protecting her – and going on to motherhood/daughterhood, childhood friendships, widowhood and a range of unrealised sexual desire. At the two-thirds point I realised I didn’t know what kind of book I was reading: a mystery to be solved, a portrait of a community, or a collection of short stories about women’s lives.
This is not a complaint. I still wanted the mystery to be solved, but if that was not to be I was prepared to accept it in the name of realism. I knew who had done the abducting by about the three-quarter mark, but didn’t know if the characters would ever find out. Even at the climactic moment when the two mothers – the distraught Russian journalist and the bitterly resigned woman who runs an Indigenous cultural centre – meet in the north during a traditional festival to bring back the summer, I still didn’t know, and solving the mystery seemed almost beside the point. At the same time, the suspense was huge.
Usually, the emails organising food etc for the group include some rumblings about the book. Not this time. The most we got was an apology from our host for not having a sauna we could meet in – thus proving that he had read at least as far as New Year’s Eve.
After the meeting: Well, not everyone was as keen on the book as I was. Given that much of the joy in it for me was not knowing what kind of book it was or how it was going to be resolved, there’s some difficulty in describing our differences. But here goes:
- I thought the ending was completely unambiguous. At least one chap had a diametrically opposite reading from mine: one reading is filled with horror, the other of sweetness and light.
- One man said he felt it as a book written by a young woman for young women readers. He read it all the way through but came away feeling there was nothing in it for him. (See my comments above about women’s relationships.)
- Another who reads most books twice because of an occupational hazard – as a former Second Director for television, he compulsively reads the first time with an eye out for locations; he has to read a second time to get the story and characters – couldn’t be bothered reading this one a second time. Contrary to the cover blurb from Publishers Weekly which speaks of masterful landscape descriptions, he could never tell where he was. While I agree that the blurb is weirdly wrong – there’s hardly any description as such – I love the sense of place. Paradoxically, at least two of us felt compelled to go back and reread some sections.
- One man enjoyed the mosaic of relationships and then was disappointed when elements of what he saw as formulaic genre fiction came to the fore; another wanted it to be a policier and found the mosaic of relationships irritatingly beside the point.
We had barely laid out our range of initial responses when someone, perhaps bored with talking about books in general or just this one, asked, ‘What do we all think about Andrew Hastie’s intervention then?’, and we were embroiled in an animated conversation about China, Australia’s foreign policy, the politics of transgender, the vast unexplored terrain of what it means to be a man, and on to solve the problems of the world like twenty-somethings. Some grandfather talk was had, a house sale was announced, travel plans were tabled, the dressing on a removed melanoma was displayed, an excellent cauliflower and potato soup with fresh grated truffle was demolished.