Disappearing Earth

Knopf. May 2019. 272p. ISBN 9780525520412. $26.95; ebk. ISBN 9780525520429. F
OrangeReviewStarDEBUT In her dazzlingly original debut novel, Phillips imagines a cold, desolate climate inhabited by characters who exude warmth and strength. This cinematic setting is the far eastern Russian peninsula, Kamchatka, where white Russians and indigenous tribes uneasily coexist. In the chilling opening chapter, two sisters vanish after a day at the beach, and though a witness describes seeing them with a man in a shiny black car, the authorities come up empty. Three years earlier in a village many hours further north, a Native girl also disappears, but she is dismissed as a runaway. Phillips cleverly weaves these two incidents through subsequent chapters that cover a year in the lives of her many vividly drawn characters, illustrating the subtle effects of racism on the investigation. Themes of dark and light pervade the narrative. Outsiders, those with darker skin or hair, are blamed for an uptick in crime. Prejudice blinds people to the truth until two grieving mothers, brought together by a photographer with a penchant for nosing into other people's business, manage to see past their differences to their shared loss and courage.
VERDICT Phillips, a Fulbright fellow whose work has appeared in Slate and the Atlantic, has written a knock-out novel that combines literary heft with a propulsive plot. [See Prepub Alert, 12/3/18.]
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