Disappearing Earth : a novel

by Julia Phillips

Hardcover, 2019

Call number




New York : Alfred A. Knopf, 2019.


"One August afternoon, on the shoreline of the Kamchatka peninsula at the northeastern edge of Russia, two sisters, eight and eleven, go missing. In the ensuing 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. Connected by the crime: a witness, a neighbor, a detective, a mother. Social and ethnic tensions have long simmered in the region, and outsiders are often the first to be accused..."--Provided by publisher.

Media reviews

...the mystery (which turns out to have quite a few twists; it's worth reading until the very end) isn't everything, either. As Phillips has said in interviews, her book is a means of exploring the violence in women's lives, violence in many forms: The aforementioned widowing, which occurs when a
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man dies in a car accident on an icy road. Domestic violence in all its abusive forms. Abduction, rape, keeping secrets. As the many characters live through the calendar year, they appear in each others' stories, bit by bit. If you're paying attention, you may figure who took the girls.
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5 more
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
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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.
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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
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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.
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Storytelling is a major thread here, with the telling of stories starting and ending the book, and appearing throughout. Disappearing Earth is closer to a traditional novel than Elizabeth Strout’s Anything is Possible or Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio, but its use of storytelling functions
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in much the same way, each chapter a story unto itself, the stories layered on top of those that came before, the threads and themes accruing as the book builds. The book never utilizes a point-of-view more than once. One of the downsides of this type of novel, of course, is that in not returning to characters and their particular stories, the reader may feel dissatisfied. In later stories, we catch glimpses or hear whispers of what’s happened to earlier characters, but there is a suspension here, a feeling of loss. This structure, though, nicely speaks to the loss of the girls, and allows that sense of incompletion to underscore the possibility that there may not be an ending at all, much less one that is fulfilling.
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Storytelling is a major thread here, with the telling of stories starting and ending the book, and appearing throughout. Disappearing Earth is closer to a traditional novel than Elizabeth Strout’s Anything is Possible or Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio, but its use of storytelling functions
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in much the same way, each chapter a story unto itself, the stories layered on top of those that came before, the threads and themes accruing as the book builds. The book never utilizes a point-of-view more than once. One of the downsides of this type of novel, of course, is that in not returning to characters and their particular stories, the reader may feel dissatisfied. In later stories, we catch glimpses or hear whispers of what’s happened to earlier characters, but there is a suspension here, a feeling of loss. This structure, though, nicely speaks to the loss of the girls, and allows that sense of incompletion to underscore the possibility that there may not be an ending at all, much less one that is fulfilling.
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Phillips’s exquisite descriptions of the desolate landscape and the “empty, rolling earth” are masterful throughout, as is her skill at crafting a complex and genuinely addictive whodunit. This novel signals the arrival of a mighty talent.

User reviews

LibraryThing member MM_Jones
The premise of two young girls missing from the shoreline of the Kamchatka Peninsula. The story is told via detail of a cast of characters all, somehow, connected to the incident. Unfortunately it reads more like a collection of short stories, many parts were previously published, than the novel I
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was anticipating. High marks for the locale and the post-Soviet description, but low on the cohesiveness of the story.
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LibraryThing member sleahey
The Kamchatka Peninsula in far eastern Russia could be considered the main character of this novel. The story starts with the abduction of two young girls from a beach in the biggest city on the peninsula in the first chapter. Each ensuing chapter moves forward month by month and presents a
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vignette about various characters both in the city and in remote villages inhabited by indigenous families. Although it isn't always apparent how the characters tie together, the themes of loss, loyalty, family ties, prejudice, and the tension between the old and the new are common threads. In the background, the missing children weigh on the community's --and reader's-- consciousness, although there seems to remain little hope of any resolution to the unsolved crime. This is a haunting novel that finally affirms the power of resilience and relationships. The description of the culture and landscape of this remote locale were interesting and evocative. The character guide and map at the beginning of the book were necessary and helpful.
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LibraryThing member thereserose5
The landscape of this book is mesmerizing, but there were too many characters that didn't seem to serve much of a purpose.
LibraryThing member 37143Birnbaum
I found this story confusing. Too much jumping around and too many characters thrown at the reader.
LibraryThing member maryreinert
Set on the island peninsula of Kamchatka Russia, this is an intertwining story of people all affected by the disappearance of two young girls. The first chapter sets the gripping scene. Two young girls are lured into the car of a strange man. The following chapters at first seemingly unrelated
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focus on various people on the peninsula. A major character in one chapter can later show up as a minor one and vice versa.

The reader also learns of another young woman who has disappeared. At eighteen, Lilia was very petite and looked much younger. Her mother, an indigenous Russian, believes she became involved in some sort of trouble and has been killed. Various acquaintances believe she has left the area due to her wild reputation. The disappearances seemingly have nothing to do with each other.

At first the Russian police appear to be actively following leads for the young girl. The disappearance of Lilia, however, is different - only rumors spread and nothing official is undertaken. The reader soon becomes familiar with the setting of Russia after the fall of the Soviet Union. Nothing is repaired, immigrants arrive causing suspicion, plumbing doesn't work, alcohol is everywhere, and there is constant pull between the old that some want to return to and the new which the younger people accept.

This is an interesting book on many levels. The portrayal of the lives of many of the characters presents an everyday look at life on this far eastern part of Russia. The culture of many indigenous peoples is becoming modernized and melded into the culture of the times. (Young university students learning ethnic dances, etc.). Gender roles are almost unchanged as many young women struggle to raise their families without the emotional and sometimes economic support of fathers. Family structures are shaken. Prejudice underscores everything.

A cultural "fair" brings many of these characters together and out of clear circumstance, the perpetrator is discovered. The story is a mystery and a rare look at a part of Russia I didn't even know existed. Great writing.

I was thankful for the list of characters in the front and the map of the area. The names are very unfamiliar and without that, it would have been difficult to keep characters straight.
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LibraryThing member lauralkeet
Disappearing Earth is a mystery of sorts, with an unusual structure more like connected short stories. The setting is also unusual: the Kamchatka peninsula off of far eastern Russia. The book opens with the abduction of two young girls; the reader is given a few details about the kidnapper, but not
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enough to go on. A typical mystery would then introduce local law enforcement and the girls’ family, and the investigation would begin identifying clues. Instead, each chapter of Disappearing Earth is about a different character, and most of the characters have tenuous links to the mystery. For example, a young woman at university begins to blossom and finds new love, while worrying about how she will handle her controlling hometown boyfriend. There is no apparent connection to the kidnapping; the woman is not even aware of the case. But through these stories, author Julia Phillips creates the world surrounding the girls and their abductor.

For most of this novel, I wondered whether solving the mystery was even the point. I liked reading about the remote Kamchatka peninsula and its culture, as well as the people who experience all of the same joy, sadness, doubt, and fear as people everywhere. However, I wasn’t really invested in the characters who were sometimes interesting, and sometimes annoying or shallow. But Phillips won me over in the second to last chapter, when linkages between certain characters were made clear and the novel moved urgently to a satisfying conclusion.

I recommend this book for its unique structure more than the murder/crime angle.
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LibraryThing member Citizenjoyce
Tragedy strikes a Russian village, and life goes on with all its tedious mundanity, misogyny and regret.
LibraryThing member RidgewayGirl
The novel begins with the abduction of two sisters, eleven and five, from a beach in the city of Petropavlovsk, the administrative centre of Kamchatka peninsula. The chapter is told from the point of view of the big sister, bored with summer and having to watch her little sister. Each subsequent
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chapter follows a character, often connected to the investigation, or interested in the search for the children, but the focus is on what is important in their lives. An indigenous woman from the isolated town of Esso struggles to find her footing at university in the big city, torn between her enjoyment in joining a dance troupe and loyalty to her boyfriend back home. A woman who has learned to trust no one loses her dog. A teenage girl is faced with being ostracized from her group of friends. A woman struggling with being stuck home caring for an infant develops fantasies about the crew of foreign workers working on the building site across the road.

I began the book thinking that it would be the story of how two plucky children survived the wilderness, or escaped something bad, an assumption aided by the book's cover. Then it appeared to be a collection of linked stories about life in Kamchatka and while interesting, didn't seem to fully justify the hype surrounding this book. But the penultimate chapter was just perfectly written, calling back to an earlier chapter, but telling its own story, that I suddenly saw the larger picture Phillips is creating here, and the final chapter pulling everything together into a unified whole. This is a very promising debut and I'm absolutely going to be reading what ever Julia Phillips writes next.
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LibraryThing member AliceaP
Disappearing Earth by Julia Phillips had a great premise and sounded like it could be the Russian equivalent of Broadchurch which I found very exciting. The story opens with the disappearance of two little girls from a small community and the suspicion and unease which come about as a result.
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Unlike the TV series, the book introduces a cast of characters that did nothing to add or move along the narrative plot. [A/N: There's one character's story in particular that really made me question its addition. If you read the book you'll recognize her as the lady that visits the hospital. What was going on there?!] I can only guess that they served as a kind of backdrop for the area which the author took great pains to describe (and which I knew nothing about prior to reading this book). I can't fault Phillips' writing or ability to engage the reader because I was fully hooked by this story...that is until I realized (nearly at the end) that so many of these side stories (not to mention the main plot) had no real conclusion. I read quite a lot of mysteries and crime procedurals and my favorite part is generally the dramatic tying up of the loose ends of the case which you don't get with Disappearing Earth. Instead you get more questions than answers. (Why was Denis obsessed with aliens?!) So I'm afraid the overall rating suffered as a result and I can only give it a 6/10. (This hasn't stopped me from encouraging others to pick up this book though. I keep waiting for one of them to come back and rage at me because they're annoyed by the ending.)
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LibraryThing member Hccpsk
Authors should not put character lists at the beginning of books--it makes readers nervous. So many characters I need a map to keep track of them? Yes, in the case of Disappearing Earth by Julia Phillips, but the effort is well worth it. Two young sisters vanish from the town center on a beautiful
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summer day in a small city on the Kamchatka peninsula. Phillips then follows the next 12 months, each with a different character loosely connected to the two girls until she circles back a year later. Beautifully written with deceptively simple sentences and sharp descriptions of the harsh landscape, Kamchatka itself becomes a main piece of the story. Phillips has written an extraordinary novel about loneliness, race, women and so much more--highly recommended.
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LibraryThing member tangledthread
There are several interesting things about this novel. The first is the location on the Kamchatka Peninsula of Russia, a remote region with a diverse group of indigenous people and white Russians.,

The second is that each chapter is told from a different point of view with all of the characters
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having some relationship to the two young girls who are kidnapped in the first chapter. Most of the chapters deal with women who are suffering in various ways. From the loss of children, a cancer diagnosis, the death of a husband, where none of these situations are resolved...except for the last chapter where we obliquely learn the fate of three missing daughters.

This is a well written book. But it was really tough to read in the middle of a worldwide pandemic.
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LibraryThing member cathyskye
Julia Phillips' enthralling Disappearing Earth is told from many points of view, and it is a mother lode of riches for readers who aren't put off by the fact that the narrator changes with each successive chapter.

I learned so much about the Kamchatka peninsula-- and was led to discover even more
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information through additional reading. The setting, containing three active volcanoes within sight of the major town of Petropavlovsk, is stark and memorable. Traveling through a fire-ravaged wooded area, the mother of the two missing girls looks out the car window and sees her grief transformed into landscape: "The long tracks of dead forest looked like thousands of bones pushed up from their graves."

As the story runs its course from one person to the next-- all connected by the abduction of the two little girls-- we learn how the area has changed since the collapse of the USSR, how poaching has affected the ecology, how the indigenous peoples and LGBT are treated, and how difficult it can be for native people to live outside their own culture.

So far, I've concentrated on how much I learned from reading this book. Now it's time to concentrate on the story itself. Since each successive narrator is connected in some way to the missing girls, the sisters were never far from my mind. The scene describing their abduction was chilling, and as the months passed, any hope I had for their safe return died an agonizing death. There was what I call a "light bulb" moment when I knew the identity of the kidnapper, but of course, everyone in the book ignored it. And the ending? I can't decide whether to call it "jaw-dropping" or a "punch in the gut." Totally unexpected.

Disappearing Earth is an amazing piece of storytelling, one that I highly recommend you to try.
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LibraryThing member streamsong
Two young sisters are kidnapped on the Kamchatka Peninsula. It’s as if they’ve vanished into thin air.

In the unique format of this book, each subsequent chapter is told a month later from a different female character’s perspective.

I loved the vivid descriptions of this remote region which is
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so difficult to access that it’s almost a locked room mystery. This story is not just set in an exotic location. It is one that could not have happened anywhere else.

There are Interesting universal social themes. Characters explore the differences between Kamchatka native people and city people – a native girl went missing previously with little police interest.

I felt this was a fresh re-imagining of the mystery novel genre.
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LibraryThing member novelcommentary
This debut novel that wound up a finalist for the National Book Award and on the top ten list of the NYT is an interesting approach to an abduction story in the unique setting of Kamchatka. In the first chapter( no spoiler here) we see two sisters, 11 and 8, fall for the ruse of a man pretending to
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be hurt and needing their assistance. So we know the truth, a truth no one else knows as the region searches for the lost girls. The author then moves on to a different chapter for each month, narrated by different people, who seem to all be connected in this small area of the world. There's Ksyusha, a reindeer herder’s daughter who is convinced by her younger cousin to take up dancing in a university group. There she meets a new boy who makes her question her feelings for her long time boyfriend; Zoya, a stay at home mother is attracted to the construction men next door ( She needed to find out what these men might do to a girl like her. She craved that knowledge; her hands, her mouth, wanted it like they wanted cigarettes.) There is also Marina, the mother of the missing sisters, who travels to a cultural New Years festival where she meets a Native woman whose teenage daughter also disappeared under similar circumstances but whose case sparked little interest. The story of the missing girls is referenced in each of the chapters, but sometimes only tangentially.
The writing was descriptive, and evoked a region unfamiliar to most. Evidently it is where this author carried out her Fulbright fellowship research, and she certainly made the most of it. Even though the lives of the indigenous people of this region were different, the similarities of love and loss and relationships made all the stories very relatable.

Some lines:

The nights Ksyusha spent in the tundra, when she was younger and braver and slept alone, when her world was clear, smelling of smoke and grasses, and thousands of reindeer passed her by."

Some people don’t care if you’re special. They will punish you anyway. Neighbors, for example, will report a girl, even a smart girl, with a girlfriend. The police will hurt you, if they get the chance.

It hurts too much to break your own heart out of stupidity, to leave a door unlocked or a child untended and return to discover that whatever you value most has disappeared. No. You want to be intentional about the destruction. Be a witness. You want to watch how your life will shatter.

The raindrops made noises like a thousand parting lips.
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LibraryThing member arubabookwoman
Two young sisters disappear, apparently kidnapped, one hot summer's day from a park in downtown Petropavlovsk on the Kamchatka Peninsula in Russia. Thereafter in chapters each covering a month we meet various characters whose lives are touched by the disappearance, peripherally and not so
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peripherally. If you've read Reservoir 13, this book reminded me very much of the techniques and story involved in that book. The story is not so much about the crime, whether it will be solved, who the perpetrator is, but rather about the place where it occurred, and the people it affected. I liked it very much.
I will say, that all the controversy here on LT about American Dirt and its authenticity made me aware that I was reading a book set in a remote, relatively unknown and foreign location, with several different and competing ethnic populations, all experiencing the effects of the dissolution of the former Soviet Union. I knew nothing about the author, who is apparently American, but the end note states she spent a year on the Kamchatka Peninsula as a Fulbright Scholar. The book felt real and true to me, but I have no idea what perspective someone native to the region would have.

3 1/2 stars
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LibraryThing member Helenliz
First things first, tis book is impossible to review without discussing the ending and the last chapter, so be warned, it will take away all suspense.
This books starts with two younge girls going missing in Kamchatka and the rest of the book covers the next year, with each chapter focussing on a
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different persons who have some link, in soe way, to the missing girls. During this we discosver the racism inherrent in the society, with the indigenous peoples of the peninsular being shunned and treated prroly by the authorities. This is most evident in the treatment of Lilia, an Even girl, a few years older than the two mssing girls, who vanished from her village 4 years previously. She was assumed to have run away and no more than perfunctory search was made.
The way the differnt people have changed their attitudes as a result of things changing is at the heart of the story. At the end the two mothers come together and they are at different stages of the hope/grief process, but there share a common sense of loss that no-one else can really understand. And just as Marina, the mother of the two girls sems to be comming to an acceptance, we reach the ;ast chapter. And then the author does something that I think is almost unforgiveable - she hints that this is all going to come out in the wash with a happy ending. The last chapter is clearly the older of the two girls telling a story to comfort the younger, while hearing goings on within the house an making reference to Lilia as also being in the house. The chances of missing children being found 11 months or 4 years later is almost nill to non-existant. It is almost nill after 3 days, let alone any longer. I'm not adverse to ahhpy endings, but they do need to rooted in reality, and this struck me as just being unrealistically too saccherine to be real. It's giving false hope, and that strikes me as unforgiveable.
It took a while for me to get into this books and style of story telling but had it ended 1 chapter shorted, I'd be giving it one star more.
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LibraryThing member mojomomma
Two sisters go missing on an isolated penisula of Russia. The story is written as a series of short stories and eventually we see how the characters are all linked together. The explanation of characters in the beginning of the book is helpful. Were the girls taken away, killed, or are they still
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hidden away somewhere. The role of the native people of the area and the white Russians is an interesting aspect of this book.
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LibraryThing member splinfo
I was hoping to like this book much more than I did. A reviewer's comment that the chapters developed like short stories and the plot was connected only "tangentially" mirrors my feelings. I didn't end up feeling particularly connected to any of the characters. The mystery of the disappearing girls
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is solved in the end but I sometimes tire of this kind of presentation. Too many unraveled threads to come together with much meaning for me. Kamchatka was interesting to read about -- I remember the country from the old board game RISK - but it wasn't enough reason to wade through this book. Not one I'm likely to recommend to my library patrons.
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LibraryThing member Beth.Clarke
The strength of this collection of short stories is how they relate to one another. It's rare to find such a creative approach to telling a story. It was difficult for me to keep the characters straight, but the character chart at the start of the book was very helpful. I was glad the characters
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had Russian names to add to the authenticness of the stories. How the tales come together at the end was pure genius. Definitely a best book of the year!
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LibraryThing member Alphawoman
A very strange and interesting structure for telling a story. Taking an enormous cast of characters and weaving their stories together to a very satisfying climax made this book a real winner.
Though I dont understand some of the connections I may have just overlooked them.
I have never read any
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stories about the indigenous people of northern Russia. Probably the race that crossed over the strait to Alaska many centuries ago.
A fine book. Couldn't put it down.
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LibraryThing member kglattstein
Recommended by a patron and encouraged by a coworker who was reading it, I chose this book in hopes of being engrossed in a good mystery set in a part of the world I knew nothing about. Author Julia Philip’s story takes you on an introspective journey into how people are affected by the
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report of something horrific like missing girls. From first hand witness, detectives , family members to people who hear about it and “make it their own” the author explores many different responses to a tragedy in their community.

As you wonder what happened to the missing girls, the author takes you on an exploration into all the different scenarios that explore the human condition where we attach ourselves to drama. This brought in many characters that left you wondering if they were victims, perpetrators or just bystanders. The diverging stories required me to refer to the list of characters. (Which you know if the author had to put the list at the beginning of the book - it will be a complex character book.) With each story I became frustrated as I attached myself to a character’s storyline (chapter) and soon found the author ending the chapter with a wistful “lesson learned (or not)” and subsequently moving on to what "as the reader" I hoped would be more progress on the initial question - "what happened to the girls?".

Despite some of the "frustration" after completing this book - I give Disappearing Earth 4 stars .
The author’s writing is very good and it was interesting reading about the intwining of old, new, and evolving native cultures set in a remote place that is an important strategic stronghold of Japan and Russia. The storyline has a poetic ending that sort of ties it all together - enough to where you probably will want to reread the story again. Does this make a great book - or just another book that has too many frustrating literary devices and points to make it culturally relevant. The read is worth making the decision yourself.
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LibraryThing member Helenoel
Many characters and apparently disconnected chapters at first- Good sense of place in Kamchatka, which I previously knew from the Risk game board and some geology. Set in post-Soviet time- a change not liked by some characters. abduction/disappearance of two small girls is the key connecting event.
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We see it through the eyes of several families and learn about both Russian (white) and native populations on a peninsula with one city, no roads to "mainland" Russia and traditions of reindeer herding, hunting and fishing. Fed my interest in books set in different places and cultures.
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LibraryThing member Olivermagnus
Two young girls are snatched off a street in Petropavlovsk, a town in the Kamchatka Peninsula. It's one of the most remote areas of northeastern Russia. In this debut, the author has constructed her novel as a series of connected short stories, each one of which could easily stand on its own. There
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seems to be no central narrative.

The stories have a couple of characteristics in common. The first is that the narrators of the various stories are all women. Second, a good portion of the characters are Even or Koryak, Siberian tribal people who are referred to as “natives”. I read a lot, but I don't ever remember reading about the indigenous Russians in any other novel. I consulted Wikipedia often so that I could understand what the Even culture was, and to see examples of traditional dances.

I was never sure where Disappearing Earth was heading. The stories themselves are individual slices of life and human drama. Characters from various stories begin to converge as the book progresses. I wasn't sure I was going to like this book when I first started, but I think it's the kind of story that stays with you after you read it. It's very well written with sense of place and depth of characters that creates a complex and memorable story.

WTR 1031
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LibraryThing member stevesmits
Well-done. The story opens with the abduction of two small girls in Kamchata. The bulk of the novel, using the abduction as a loose link, describes the lives and relationships of people living on the peninsula in its largest city and outlying locales. The character studies are like short stories
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and rich in depictions of diverse people. I learned that this part of Russia has an indigenous population, many of whom herd reindeer on the tundra. Beyond, Russian there are several languages heard there. The descriptions of the land with its harsh climate, mountains, tundra and geology (volcanoes and hot springs) gives a vivid sense of this remote land.

The final chapter returns to the abduction. Without revealing its ending, it was handled quite satisfactorily.
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LibraryThing member rglossne
On an August afternoon, two sisters ages 11 and 8 go missing from the shore of the Kamchatka peninsula in a remote part of Russia. Over the course of a year as the police investigation turns up nothing, the novel explores the effect of the disappearance on the community, told by a witness, a
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neighbor, the detective, a mother. Revealing the connections between community members, and the different viewpoints each narrator brings, the novel paints a picture of a community and a region that is compelling and readable.
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