It’s a Mystery: “Those that know the most must mourn the deepest”

It’s a Mystery post feature by Irma Heldman

Disappearing Earth
By Julia Phillips
Knopf, 2019

It’s a Mystery: “Those that know the most must mourn the deepest” By Irma Heldman, Disappearing Earth, By Julia Phillips, Knopf, 2019

This novel opens with the audacious abduction one August afternoon of the Golosovsky sisters—Sofia 8, and Alyona 11—from the shoreline of a public beach on the waterfront of Petropavlovsk-Kamchatsky. It is the region’s largest city on the volcano-spiked Kamchatka Peninsula in northeastern Russia, where the tundra still supports herds of reindeer and the various Native groups who depend on them. We watch fearfully as the girls are shepherded into a car with the promise of a ride home by a deceptively kind stranger. And when he drives past the intersection that leads to the apartment they share with their mother, our worst fears are confirmed. They are in peril and utterly alone. Their disappearance shakes up this close-knit community to its core. The mystery of how they could have vanished on a peninsula all but cut off from the rest of Russia by a mountain range looms large. In the ensuing weeks, then months, the police investigation turns up nothing.

The subsequent 12 chapters, taking place during the months of the following year, chart the impact of the kidnapping—and the destructive effect of longing and loss felt most deeply among the women. This plays out in a series of interconnected stories about various distaff members of the community, all with the shadow of the missing girls hanging over them. And there was another disappearance, three years earlier, not as avidly covered by the media as that of the Golosovsky sisters, an Even girl from Esso. Her name was Lilia and her vanishing, in light of this recent tragedy, assumes new weight.

For Katya, a customs officer for the city’s maritime container port, the kidnapping made her nervous, touchy about the least little thing. She cannot fit the missing sisters in with the crimes she knew. She encountered corruption all the time at her job. Bribery, Katya understood. Two stolen little girls were a different matter. The only eyewitness is her friend Oksana, a researcher at the volcanological institute who managed to walk her dog past the abduction. What’s depressing is that although Oksana had spent hours with the police they remain skeptical about her account of a man she can barely describe ushering two little girls into his shiny new car. They decide that the sisters must have drowned and the authorities begin trawling the bay. They don’t find any bodies.

For Lilia’s edgy older sister Natasha, a doctoral candidate saddled with two children and a husband who is away at sea most of the year, the Golosovskaya’s abduction stirs up an old dispute with her mother, who is the head of a cultural center in the village of Esso:

…Her mother harbored her own bitter theories…. Her mother would rather despise the police, suspect their neighbors, picture her youngest child grabbed and murdered than admit that Lilia had run away from them.

“These are children….They were abducted,” Natasha said. “They aren’t Lilia.”

Her mother sighed….. “They were killed, I’m sure. Their posters here don’t mention any abduction. But, Tasha, it’s better not to speak of such things. What can we do about it all? Nothing.”

Or nothing more is the consensus of the cops who give up the search. As for husbands, fathers, boyfriends and brothers, they are helpless bystanders. Natasha’s brother Denis, who is “just on the more idiosyncratic end of normal,” believes their sister was pulled away into space.

Like those Japanese Daruma dolls nesting inside one another, Disappearing Earth’s many female characters are entwined, sometimes tenuously, by the tragedy of the Golosovsky girls.

In the novel’s penultimate chapter, we revisit the pain of Marina, the girl’s mother, as she attends a local holiday festival:

People pressed behind her, against her, but she was trying to keep a little distance between herself and the recorder.  How was it possible? This peninsula was so small that she collided with random journalists wherever she went, but so big she could lose both her girls…. The disappearance day. The search-party weeks….. Marina remembered the sour smell of microphones held under her nose…. For months, until the snow fell and the police reorganized their investigation, her former colleagues hunger for information was bottomless, Marina was desperate, she would give them anything…. She was a fish ripped open for the reporting.

At this same festival, a chance encounter with a photographer leads to the shocking conclusion you won’t see coming.

Julia Phillips’ Disappearing Earth is an exquisitely crafted, stunning novel, set in a strange, ancient, beautiful place marked by glaciers and volcanoes and endless cold. When Marina jumps over the traditional New Year’s fire in just the right way Phillips remarkable novel dares to imagine the possibilities.

—Irma Heldman is a veteran publishing executive and book reviewer with a penchant for mysteries. One of her favorite gigs was her magazine column “On the Docket” under the pseudonym O. L. Bailey.