Each subsequent chapter, titled for the months following 'August', is told by another woman living on the Kamchatka Peninsula in Eastern most Russia, where the girls lived. Each chapter, at first glance really seems like a separate short story about life on this desolate part of the earth. But on closer inspection each woman/girl is somehow related to the missing sisters or to Lilia, a native woman who went missing three years earlier from an Even village, Esso, north of the peninsula's main city, where most of the inhabitants are reindeer herders. Though the book does not bother the reader with the details of the searches conducted to find the abducted Golosoyskaya sisters, it was made clear that little was done to find the missing native woman. Though the story was set in Russia, this seems like a very American issue---unequal justice for minority or indigenous people.
The stories told by each woman carry similar themes about the view of women in general. They are viewed as victims, untrustworthy, in need of male protection, not capable of full respect. In a lot of ways the women, though not abducted themselves, are fighting for their own autonomy and not being captives themselves in their own lives. The woman, a scientist, is the only witness to the abduction and she thinks her education and advanced degree make her immune from such attacks on her gender, yet the police decide that her testimony is unreliable and go with a unsubstantiated theory that the sisters weren't really abducted, but drowned. This devalues the scientist in everyone's eyes, including those of her husband.
In the end, motherhood triumphs when the mother of Lilia meets the mother of the abducted sisters and many of the characters end up at the same place at the same time. Perhaps women's intuition and doggedness in the face of hopelessness has an important role in society after all. The ending is both surprising and disorienting.
I listened to the audiobook which was a good choice on one point and a bad choice on another. First, the narrator of the audiobook, Ilyana Kadushin, was an excellent choice since it is clear she can speak Russian. She did not stumble over the pronunciation of names and places as I would have were I reading a print version of the book. I could just sit back and be swept up into the stories and empathize with the women who lived such desperate and lonely lives. On the other hand, I did not have the benefit of the character list on the first page of the book. Apparently, (I still haven't seen it) the relationships between characters was also listed. I needed this list badly as the stories started to intertwine, especially for the last one where everything coalesced. I guess if I were to offer advice it would be to listen to the audiobook but have a print version of the book to refer to as you listen.
I understand that Disappearing Earth is author Julia Phillips' first book. She hit a home run with this book, even garnering a spot on the National Book Award Short List. When asked what she would write about next time, her answer made me laugh out loud---to NOT set the book in a part of the world where she has to save up for several years in order to afford visiting it.
This was a book club selection and I'm not sure we got the full benefit of a good discussion on it. The publisher did not provide discussion questions. The long list of characters with unpronounceable names didn't help either. Egads, we had a hilarious discussion about the ending where we all ended up more confused than before we started the discussion. Oh well, I still thought the book was brilliant and now recommend it to you.
RHS book club selection December 2019