When I moved to Japan, I did not realize how close northern Japan was to Russia. The Far East of Russia and Siberia are a source of interest for me. It makes sense now, that Russia and Japan did get into a war before WWII and even today, a small chain of northern islands off the big island of Hokkaido are disputed between the two countries. When I heard on NPR that Julia Phillips wrote a novel set in the far northern Russian peninsula of Kamchatka, I wanted to read this book. I also had a friend in Japan that was from there and so my interest was piqued.
It is obvious Phillips spent a lot of time there and the isolated, cold and wild setting has a profound impact on this novel and the people living there. While reading, I kept thinking about how the Russian side compares to Alaska. It would be a really good travel book to compare and contrast the two from a point of view from a naturalist and tourist. I’ve never been to Alaska or Russia’s far east and both places are on my bucket list. It must be beautiful and wild, but I would guess that the Russians do a worse job than Americans at protecting wilderness and the environment.
The book is unusual in that it starts as a kidnapping/murder mystery of sorts, with the abduction of two children. However, she then introduces new characters all the way through the book and how the disappearance of the girls influences their lives, often in a subtle way. The book does not follow the investigation step-by-step, but instead dives into different characters and their families on different parts of peninsula. Many of the stories are of native peoples which I never really thought of when you think of Russia. I won’t give away the ending, but I was engaged until the end of the book. Kamchatka would be a very tough place to live. It is a long way from other population centers with access only by air or sea. The weather would be depressing as well as a poor economy. Many of the people’s lives in the book reminded me of rural America. The struggle to make ends meet and to find meaningful work in a depopulating area, far from the financial centers of cities. The Russian mentality is also very different from American culture. I would like to read some more about the history of Kamchatka during the Soviet times. It was referenced in the book that the peninsula was off-limits to outsiders and some of the older people there have nostalgia for that time.
I highly recommend Disappearing Earth by Julia Phillips and thank her for the vivid stories of people and the land from such an exotic place. As always with me, the stories helped me drift back to sleep while fighting insomnia.