The tundra—a treeless plain with an underlayer of permafrost—is most commonly found, like many very cold things, in Russia. The threat of straying too far from the city and ending up there haunts every word of Disappearing Earth, a debut mystery novel by Julia Phillips. Disappearing Earth is set in Kamchatka, a sparsely populated and difficult-to-reach peninsula along the Pacific Ring of Fire, where tundra and active volcanoes coexist in a dramatic landscape. The “locked-room effect” of this setting adds an intensity to the central story: the kidnapping of two small girls from the capital city, Petropavlovsk-Kamchatsky, and the ripple effects this event has on the wider peninsular community. Phillips’s real interest, though, is in the everyday anxieties of being a woman—anxieties she conveys against the backdrop of a confined landscape, where the idea of disappearing seems at once impossible and inescapable.
Disappearing Earth begins as the girls, two Russian sisters named Alyona and Sophia Golosovskaya, aged eleven and eight, are abducted by a stranger on their walk home from school. Despite the thriller setup, Phillips focuses less on their disappearance than on the effect it has on Kamchatka’s multiethnic patchwork of communities. There’s a sharp divide between the ethnic Russians who dominate the capital city and the indigenous communities who live in the resource-scarce regions farther north. This division is deepened by the difference between the robust police investigation and media circus surrounding the girls’ disappearance, and the shoddy handling of a similar case involving Lilia, a teenage girl from Esso, a remote village populated largely by people from the indigenous Koryak and Even communities.
Phillips weaves these twin mysteries into the everyday lives of women in Kamchatka, from the school secretary to a customs officer working at the port. Using a structure that resembles that of a short-story collection, Phillips deftly conveys the impact a high-profile crime case can have on a community, particularly when the victim is female. Case in point: one chapter follows Ksenia, a university student from Esso whose controlling boyfriend uses the disappearance of the Golosovskaya sisters to track her movements even more closely. In another chapter, we meet Oksana, a PhD candidate at the volcanological institute who witnessed the kidnapping but did not realize what she was seeing. Her guilt, mixed with the authorities’ refusal to believe her (maybe, they conjecture, the girls went swimming and drowned), echoes the overall frustration so many women in this novel feel about not being believed. There is also the shared burden they carry, the burden of being told that their safety is their own responsibility. “The Golo-sovskaya sisters, who, walking alone, made themselves vulnerable—that one mistake cost them their lives,” one character tells a friend. “If you aren’t doing what you’re supposed to, if you let your guard down, they will come for you.”
The gendered dimensions of crime stories, along with our rabid consumption of them, have reached the point of parody. The true-crime craze has meant that, on an almost daily basis, a new slew of female victims fills our podcast and Netflix queues. Some authors, however, have tried to subvert the genre’s reliance on brutalized female bodies. Last year, Maria Hummel published Still Lives, a thriller about a performance artist whose last show is a photo exhibition where she appears in pictures dressed as famous female crime victims (the Black Dahlia, Chandra Levy, Nicole Brown Simpson). Disappearing Earth likewise tries to subvert the true-crime genre in order to examine the issue of violence against women, ultimately contesting the ways this violence is represented in fiction. Phillips downplays the central crime of the novel—the children’s abduction, the kind of story that features prominently in commercialized crime stories—to focus instead on the daily forms of gendered violence that pervade the lives of Kamchatka’s women. In a subtle nod to crime-writing conventions, the Golosovskaya girls’ mother, Marina, is an investigative journalist who once uncovered a salmon poaching operation, a dangerous endeavor in a region where salmon is a major export and thus a target for organized crime. But after starting a family, “Marina no longer missed the risk; she wanted to stay far away from night raids, gutted creatures, men who carried weapons.” Yet violence finds her family nonetheless, and the painful fact of women’s inescapable proximity to violence makes itself felt.
Phillips expands the potential of the crime genre by laying out how people instrumentalize the threat of violence against women in order to bolster other narratives, most prominently xenophobia. Throughout the novel, people speculate that the girls’ kidnapper could be a migrant worker from Uzbekistan or Tajikistan (prejudice against migrant laborers from Central Asia has been a pervasive, and at times violent, element of post-Soviet economic precariousness). Phillips is careful to show the way that white Russian women likewise instrumentalize minority bodies. When the wife of the police detective working the case is denigrated by her husband (who takes out his frustrations about the floundering case on her), she fantasizes about getting revenge by sleeping with one of the migrants doing construction work nearby. In this way, Phillips animates the broad canvas of social tensions and the intersections of resentment, both racial and gendered, that crime (particularly against women) mobilizes. In so doing, Disappearing Earth lays bare the matrix of ethnic tensions between Russians, indigenous peoples, and Central Asian migrants that seldom appear in Anglophone literature about Russia.
In a 2015 article for Jezebel titled “Feminism at the End of the World,” Phillips wrote about her experience living in the Valley of the Geysers, a part of the Volcanoes of Kamchatka World Heritage site. Originally sent there to sell souvenirs to tourists, Phillips eventually became a cook, by virtue of being the only woman in an all-male cohort of rangers and construction workers. Sexist comments became “more regular than the geysers,” she writes. Disappearing Earth is haunted by the same tension that comes from being the only woman for miles. As many parts of Kamchatka are, the Valley of the Geysers is accessible only by helicopter. Kamchatka is like an island, surrounded by ocean on three sides; no roads connect it to the mainland. Dogsleds and helicopters are often the only options for travel. As such, the setting of the novel reflects, albeit on a larger, more dramatic scale, the sense of fear that women everywhere have in an empty parking garage or alone on a street at night. Disappearing Earth is a catalog of those emotions and the complicated ways they both connect and divide women in different, dangerous terrains.