"Splendidly imagined . . . Thrilling" Simon Winchester
"A genuine masterpiece" Gary Shteyngart
One of Entertainment Weekly's 10 Best Book of 2019 So Far
Spellbinding, movingevoking a fascinating region on the other side of the worldthis suspenseful and haunting story announces the debut of a profoundly gifted writer.
One August afternoon, on the shoreline of the Kamchatka peninsula at the northeastern edge of Russia, two girlssisters, eight and elevengo missing. In the ensuing weeks, then 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.
Taking us through a year in Kamchatka, Disappearing Earth enters with astonishing emotional acuity the worlds of a cast of richly drawn characters, all connected by the crime: a witness, a neighbor, a detective, a mother. We are transported to vistas of rugged beautydensely wooded forests, open expanses of tundra, soaring volcanoes, and the glassy seas that border Japan and Alaskaand into a region as complex as it is alluring, where social and ethnic tensions have long simmered, and where outsiders are often the first to be accused.
In a story as propulsive as it is emotionally engaging, and through a young writer's virtuosic feat of empathy and imagination, this powerful novel brings us to a new understanding of the intricate bonds of family and community, in a Russia unlike any we have seen before.
|Publisher:||Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group|
|Product dimensions:||6.20(w) x 9.40(h) x 1.30(d)|
About the Author
JULIA PHILLIPS is a Fulbright fellow whose writing has appeared in Glimmer Train, The Atlantic, Slate, and The Moscow Times. She lives in Brooklyn.
Read an Excerpt
“We forgot the tent,” Max said, turning to Katya. The beam of her flashlight flattened his features. His face was a white mask of distress. The forest around them was black, because they’d left Petropavlovsk so late—his last-minute packing, his bad directions. His fault.
In the harsh light, he was nearly not beautiful anymore. Cheekbones erased, chin cleft illuminated, lips parted, he looked wide-eyed into the glare. Katya and Max had been together since August and as of September were officially in love. Yet the tent. Disgust rippled through her. “You’re not serious,” she said. She caught the tail of her repulsion before it passed; she had to hold on to it, a snake in the hand, otherwise she would forgive him too soon.
“It’s not here.”
Katya handed him the flashlight and started to dig through the trunk. Shadows lengthened and contracted against their things: sacks of food, sleeping bags, two foam mats. A folded tarp to line the tent floor. Loose towels for the hot springs, a couple folding chairs, rolled trash bags that unraveled as she shoved them. Katya should have packed the car herself, instead of watching his body flex in the rearview mirror this evening. Pots clanked somewhere deep in the mess.
“Max!” she said. “How!”
“We can sleep outside,” he said. “It’s not that cold.” She stared back at his outline above the circle of light. “We can sleep in the car,” he said.
“Magnificent.” We forgot, he said, we, as if they together kept one tent in one closet of one shared home. As if they jointly made these mishaps. As if she had not needed to leave the port early this afternoon, drive twenty minutes south through the city to shower and change at her own place, drive thirty-five minutes north to get to his apartment complex on time, then wait eighteen long minutes in his parking lot for him to come out.
He’d told her earlier in the week he would bring his tent. His car, a dinky Nissan, didn’t have four-wheel drive, so they were taking hers, and he had loaded such a stack of stuff into the trunk—enough to merit a second run up to his apartment, a return trip with his arms full—that Katya told herself he had it handled. Instead of checking she tuned her car radio to local news of a shop robbery, an approaching cyclone, another call for those two little girls. She gripped her steering wheel. Once Max finally climbed into the passenger seat, she said, “That’s everything?”
Nodding, he leaned to kiss her. “Let’s get going. Take me away,” he said then. She checked the time (forty-one minutes late) and shifted into reverse.
Now they were going to spend the night in her mini SUV. Dependable as the Suzuki was, bringing them these four hours north of the city over roads that turned from asphalt to gravel to dirt, it made terrible sleeping quarters. Two doors, two narrow rows of seats, no legroom. The gearshift would separate them from each other. Neither of them would have space to lie down.
Katya sighed and Max’s shoulders bowed in response. She wanted to touch those shoulders. “It’s okay,” she said. Her disgust slithered off to wait for his next error. “It’s all right, bear cub, it happens. Would you gather us some wood?”
Once the flashlight was off bobbing between trees, Katya moved her car over the flattened patch of weeds where a tent was meant to be staked. The mistake had been hers in not asking earlier... next time they’d do better. Max was simply the sort of person, like so many others, whom she had to supervise.
Soil shifted under her tires. She didn’t turn the headlights back on. Slowly, her eyes were adjusting to the dark. She had visited these woods as a child, and though she must be seeing two decades of growth, the birch trees in the starlight looked to her exactly as they had when she was a girl: aged and grand and magical. The world outside had steadily warped, become less predictable and more dangerous, while spots like this were protected. Here, there was no radio news, no city stresses, no schedule to disrupt. The tent had served as the last opportunity for disappointment. There was no reason left to get worked up. Katya had to remember that.
When she opened the door, her keys chimed in the ignition. She pulled them out and the nighttime rushed in. Bats chirping, insects whirring. Dry leaves brushing against each other at the tops of the trees. Max, far in the woods, cracking branches for their fire. The steady waterfall noise of the hot springs.
Katya cleared her head with the sounds. Max’s company left her overstimulated; back in the city, at his apartment, she sometimes excused herself to the bathroom just to sit on the closed toilet lid and cool down. Even having him give directions from the passenger seat overwhelmed. His clumsiness, his sincerity, the shocking symmetry of his flawless face lit her up.
“It’s the honeymoon phase,” her girlfriends told her. Oksana, who worked with Max at the volcanological institute, said, “He’s an idiot. It’ll pass.” But Katya had been with other men, even lived with one for a while in her twenties, and never gone on this kind of honeymoon. Max activated a new sense in her. Just as the ability to hear lived in her ears, taste in her tongue, touch in her fingertips, a particular sensitivity to Max was now concentrated below her belly button. He reached for her and her guts twinged. Her sixth sense: craving.
He might be an idiot, but it wasn’t passing.
Craving him distracted Katya from other things. Like the tent, she reminded herself, as she took her headlamp from the glove compartment. Strapping it on, she got to work—organizing the bags, unpacking their groceries, reclining the front seats as far as they would go.
She stood back to scan them in the thin light of her lamp. Not very far at all.
Max returned to a set-up camp. Peeled potatoes bumped in a pot filled with stream water. Katya had laid half a smoked salmon belly, alongside slices of radish, tomato, and white cheese, on a plastic bag on the hood of her car, so they could snack before dinner. Together, in the brisk air, they built the fire. “I fell out there,” he confessed once they had the flames going. He turned to show her a smear of dirt down his back.
She pressed her fingers to his shirt, the heat of his skin underneath. Ripples of muscle. “You’re not hurt, are you?”
She had to laugh at the length of the stain. “You’re not much of an outdoorsman, cub.”
“I am,” he said. “Give me a break, Katyush, it’s dark.”
“I know,” Katya said. Still. Over the fire, the potatoes were boiling. She took her hands away from him to stir the pot.
The firelight painted them both orange and black. Max’s chin, his fine bones, the tip of his nose, the knob that ended his jaw. Too handsome. With one boot, Katya nudged a burning log into better position.
The only other weekend Katya and Max had spent away together was the one in August when they first met. Oksana had invited Katya as a plus-one on a work retreat to Nalychevo Park. Katya did not dare refuse; Oksana’s terrible summer, spent going through her husband’s phone as their marriage crumbled, had hit its low only days before when she managed to walk her dog past the abduction of those little girls. Oksana had spent hours with the police as she tried to describe a kidnapper she hardly remembered. “The only reason I noticed him at all,” she told Katya on the drive up to the park that weekend, “was because his car looked so good. I thought, Where does he get that cleaned? My van looks like trash after one turn around the city, while his shone.” Oksana checked her mirrors and shifted into the left lane to pass a truck. “I told the officers that when they find this guy, before they cuff him and beat him unconscious, they have to ask him for his best car-wash tips.”
“My God,” Katya had said. “Are you sure you want to do this right now?” Their route from the city to the Nalychevo cabin forced them to ford six shallow rivers; after they parked, they needed to walk the last half hour of their journey through marsh. Katya found Oksana’s commitment to the trip disturbing. If Katya were in the driver’s seat, she would have turned the van around.
In the first days after the kidnapping, Katya was nervous, touchy, about everything. She looked at her friends like they were aliens. She could not fit the missing sisters in with the crimes she knew. Bribery, for example, Katya understood—she encountered corruption all the time at her job. Just today, inspecting the cargo of a new Canadian importer, she and the other customs officers discovered thousands of live turtles, their yellow arms waving in the light. (“What’d you do with them all?” Max had asked her this evening as they left city limits. “Threw them in the bay,” Katya said. “No. Come on. Seized them for destruction.” He’d pouted and she’d laughed.)
So smugglers, sure. Or poachers, trespassers, arsonists, drunk drivers, mauled hunters, men throttling each other in the course of an argument, migrant workers falling off the scaffolding at construction sites, people freezing to death over the winter months... these were regular items in Kamchatka’s news. Two stolen little girls were a different matter. Oksana had passed only ten meters from the crime as it happened but managed to joke about it; meanwhile Katya studied the missing-person posters and frightened herself by thinking of what abductors she might run into one day.
“I’m obligated to do this,” Oksana had told Katya during their drive. “I’m not going to stop going to work because I happened to walk Malysh at a shitty time.” She passed another slow car. “Besides, what else am I going to do? Spend all weekend relaxing in my happy home?”
Katya had known Oksana more than a decade. Even when they met, as graduate students, Oksana had been cold, guarded, but intriguing. A fine distraction on a long trip. She spent the rest of the car ride briefing Katya on her colleagues. Boring, sloppy, and pregnant, Oksana said of the three other institute researchers in the group. “Don’t bother with any of them. At least we’ll have each other.” Then Katya followed Oksana into a park cabin to discover a man who looked like a film star.
“Who, Max?” Oksana said. “Ugh.”
From the first night, he put that tug in Katya’s stomach. Petropavlovsk wasn’t that big and the number of thirty-six-year-old singles in town even smaller, but she had somehow missed him for all these years, until Nalychevo. The two of them kept slipping off to fumble under each other’s clothes behind the woodpile. They could hear the group’s voices through the cabin windows. When Max whispered caution into Katya’s mouth, she only wrapped her arms around his neck and pulled him closer. She wanted his beauty to blot out all fear.
And now Max and Katya were well on their way to domesticity. Max’s coworkers had moved on from their initial burst of gossip; even Oksana was too preoccupied with her home life to do much more than shrug when Katya brought him up. Katya’s male colleagues had backed off on asking her to drinks, and her female colleagues treated her marginally less like an old maid. On weekends, Max and Katya cycled through the city together. They kayaked the bay and barbecued by the ocean shore. He took her a few times to his climbing gym. This autumn trip to the hot springs was Katya’s initiative.
Max stood to fetch her a strip of salmon. The long shadow of dirt showed on his thermal top. I love him, she practiced telling herself. It still sounded strange.
Sloppy, Oksana had warned Katya about him during their car ride, before any of them knew a warning was necessary. Once they arrived at the cabin, Katya was too busy picturing him pressed against the birch logs to listen. The Nalychevo group, like the rest of the city, had been hungry for news about the girls’ disappearance. Oksana’s story did not satisfy them. They looked instead to Max, who talked up his role in the volunteer search parties.
“Oksana’s giving herself too little credit. Thanks to her, we have a description of the guy and his car. We’re going to keep looking until we find them,” he said. He even passed around the girls’ school pictures on his phone.
Their supervisor—the boring one—squinted at Max’s screen. “What type was he?” he asked Oksana. “Russian, you think? Or maybe Tajik? Did he look dirty?”
Their pregnant coworker stared straight ahead. Oksana raised a loose hand. “He looked like any other guy. Nothing interesting.”
The supervisor pressed on. “What about his hair color? The shape of his eyes?”
“The shape of his eyes! You’re asking if I stopped to chat about his genealogy? Was he half Korean, a quarter Chukchi?” Oksana laughed, a noise pinched and bitter. “I saw a big man. A big car. Two little kids.”
“She saw enough,” Max said.
Katya had flinched from the force of her inappropriate desire: the more Max spoke about witness statements, police debriefings, and grieving mothers, the more she wanted him. A confident man volunteering to undo danger. To find this eager heart inside this immaculate body... she hadn’t thought it was possible.
Well. It wasn’t, not entirely. The Golosovskaya sisters were still missing, and Max hadn’t gone out with the search parties since the first of the month.
The tent tonight was only his latest plan to fall apart between promise and execution. Usually there was something endearing about that pattern—Max’s ideas, his excitement, his fumbled follow-through—but Katya had not found it cute to watch the sun set over the mountains when they were hours away from this campsite. The trees on either side of the road north had darkened while Max kept turning his phone to try to recover a GPS signal. In came Katya’s private, slippery distress.
The more time they spent with each other, the more she learned. If, one day, Petropavlovsk was flooded with lava, Katya feared she would know exactly which handsome researcher at the institute must have overlooked every sign of an imminent eruption. Max could not always keep track of what was important. He did not seem as excellent to her now.
For the length of this weekend, though, it would not matter. The smoke from their fire mixed with the steam off the hidden springs, making the night dense. Charred wood, rich sulfur, and cold earth: the smells of nostalgia. Her family had loved this place. After the USSR collapsed, there were no longer any restrictions on travel, no stop to movement; the Soviet military bases that had constrained the entire peninsula were shuttered, so Kamchatka’s residents could finally explore their own land. Katya’s family had gone as far north as Esso to meet the natives with their reindeer herds, west to see steaming craters, and south to pull caviar out of what had become unpatrolled lakes. She spent her youth in the brief reckless period between the Communists’ rigidity and Putin’s strength, and though she had grown into a boundary enforcer, inspecting imports and issuing citations, within herself there remained a post-Soviet child. Some part of her did crave the wild.
Katya allowed herself to blend with the darkness. “My parents used to take us camping every weekend,” she said to Max.
“Practically.” She took her last bite of fish and he passed her a soft slice of cheese. “As soon as the snow melted, we were out in the woods. They would give me and my brothers projects—following animal tracks, or finding different types of trees.”
He touched her waist. “They were probably giving themselves some time to be alone.”
“I don’t think so,” she said.
“Probably, though, right?”
When she was ten years old, her parents were... She had to count it. Her mother had only been thirty-two. Younger than Katya was now. She pictured them then, their long limbs colliding, and shivered. “Stop,” she said, batting Max’s chest.
“I’m joking,” Max said. “I’m sure their intentions were completely educational. How’d you do with the projects? Find all your trees?”
“Of course we did,” she said. “I was the oldest. I told them we weren’t coming back without a full catalog of leaves.”
Over soft potatoes and seared sausage, they told each other stories. How Oksana had said she’d discovered texts to yet another woman on her husband’s phone—“Everyone in the office is talking about it. He’s an asshole,” Max said with his mouth full.
“They need to end it already.”
“Good luck giving that advice,” Max said. “I try as much as possible to avoid telling Oksana what to do.” Katya put her plate down and rested her hands on Max’s pant leg as he ate. Under her palms, the swell of his thigh.
Through the woods came the drunk rise and fall of people at a neighboring campsite singing. The trees made a black wall. Those voices, the ash in the air, and the chattering night put Katya in mind of their first weekend together. “Any updates from the search?” she asked.
Max shook his head. “And there won’t be any more volunteers going out after it snows. Lieutenant Ryakhovsky says now that the girls may have been taken off Kamchatka.”
“Come on,” Katya said. “In what, a passenger plane?”
“I don’t know. A ship.”
“A cruise ship? To Sapporo?” If so, Katya’s colleagues would have found them. Customs inspected every vessel leaving by air or sea.
And air and sea were the sole options for leaving. Though Kamchatka was no longer a closed territory by law, the region was cut off from the rest of the world by geography. To the south, east, and west was only ocean. To the north, walling off the Russian mainland, were hundreds of kilometers of mountains and tundra. Impassable. Roads within Kamchatka were few and broken: some, to the lower and central villages, were made of dirt, washed out for most of the year; others, to the upper villages, only existed in winter, when they were pounded out of ice. No roads connected the peninsula to the rest of the continent. No one could come or go over land.
“A cargo ship,” he said. “Maybe.”
Katya had to laugh. “Aha,” she said. The campfire flickered over Max’s face.
“I’m only repeating what the detective told all of us. It’s possible, isn’t it? Because we looked everywhere else. We found nothing.”
Everywhere else, he said, as though Petropavlovsk-Kamchatsky’s borders marked the edges of existence. “Those girls didn’t leave the peninsula,” she said. “Couldn’t he have hidden their bodies? In a garage, a construction site, the woods?”
“We searched those places,” he said. “For weeks. Covered every neighborhood.”
“Outside Petropavlovsk, then,” Katya said. “You don’t think he took them along the road to the western coast? Or north?”
Max set his plate down. “Maybe he hid them in a national park. Threw them into a geyser.”
“Maybe so,” Katya said. He grimaced. “He could’ve done anything, that’s my point,” she said. “Driven them six hours away and enrolled them as his own children in some village school.”
“Well, yes. There’s no limit to the possibilities. So the police asked us only to focus on what was most likely,” Max said. “This was someone from Petropavlovsk. Oksana described a white man.”
“Normal-looking, she said.”
Katya did not disagree with that. Instead, she said, “She barely saw him. Anyway, it’s not all natives out there.”
“She saw his car,” Max said. “A shiny dark car, she told us. No one comes down unpaved roads from the villages without getting covered in dust. So think: how would this person, living in the city, desperate, maybe crazy, most likely leave? He would know ships come and go daily. The detective says he could have bribed his way into a shipping container.”
“Or maybe this person does what is unlikely,” she said. “Went to a geyser after all. This is a man who preys on children. Who knows what he might be capable of?” She was talking like a tabloid reporter, she knew, but that post-kidnapping touchiness had crept back on her. If the police had solved the case already, she would not have to speak about such things. She did her job at the port well—the girls couldn’t have left Kamchatka. Did everyone else in the city do theirs?
“Katyush,” Max said. “Please. They’re gone. The search isn’t useful anymore.”
Max, of all people, announcing what was or wasn’t useful. Katya shifted her fingers on his leg and he fell silent.
They stooped under her open trunk door to change into their bathing suits. Away from the fire, they had goose bumps. Their breath fogged. Katya adjusted her shoulder strap and Max grabbed her. He backed her up until her legs hit the car. They kissed for a long time under the metal canopy, where neither of them had room to stand up straight. They bent into each other like two praying hands, but Katya wasn’t thinking of God. She forgot lost children. She was thinking of Max, his arms, his fingers, his mouth, his fine teeth, the urgency under her skin.
Eventually she had to pull away. She was in her bikini and rubber sandals, and the cold had numbed her feet. Max, in his briefs and old sneakers, shone in the dark.
He crossed his arms on his chest. “So where are we going?” he asked.
The hot springs were calling—hissing, bubbling. “Come on,” she said and led him away from camp, along the stream, on a narrow path through the trees until they came to the clearing that held the baths.
Five rubber-and-wood structures, aboveground pools fed by hoses from steaming wells. The rotten-egg smell of the springs was thick here. Warm mud slid under their feet. Katya and Max left their shoes at the base of one bath’s stairs and climbed in. The heat dragged up their bodies. Katya exhaled into the swirling air. “Heaven,” Max said, and she sank next to him in the sulfuric water to her chin.
The steam unwound. Above them were a million tiny stars. The night was blue and black, outlined by autumn constellations, and Katya, staring up, found a satellite blinking its way across the sky. The longer she watched, the deeper the heat reached inside her. It bled into her organs. It cleared her mind.
Near him, she couldn’t think of anything but him. But when they were a little apart she returned to herself, and she liked that woman she came back to. Someone... capable. Someone who maintained standards, who met commitments, who produced results. Someone who would be disappointed in a man who acted the way Max so often did. She should be disappointed with him.
Max slid through the water toward her. His skin was slick from dissolved minerals. Against her back, the wooden edge of the pool was slippery. He tucked his fingers into her bathing suit bottom, and she stiffened, holding on to that bit of her own brain.
“Not here,” she said.
“Then where?” he said in her ear.
“In the tent,” she whispered back.
He pulled away.
That had come out meaner than she meant. “I’m joking,” she said. Now he was far away from her.
“Huh,” he said, his voice separated from his body by a wall of steam.
“It was a joke.”
“Don’t—” she started, and then stopped. Should she apologize? Try to explain? If he made mistakes, though, he had to accept the consequences. She, too, should accept the truth in front of her: what had propelled her into a weekend’s liaison in August wasn’t enough to sustain a relationship through the fall. Let alone beyond. The snake slithered up her throat. Max could not handle responsibility. Each of them would be happier in the long run with anybody else.
Between them, heat puffed. The water hissed and trickled.
Back at the car, they changed into dry clothes, stepped into sleeping bags, and hopped into their seats: Katya in the driver’s, Max in the passenger’s. Both of them already sweating from the effort. It was going to be a miserable night. She peeled off her long-sleeved shirt. “Should we buckle ourselves in?” she asked, turning to him, smiling, but above his sleeping bag, his shoulders were still high and offended.
This was their romantic trip. She leaned across the gearshift and he pecked her on the lips. “Night,” he said.
“Good night.” She pressed her forehead to her window, her swaddled feet against the brake. How much longer could she do this? Max was sweet, he was gorgeous, but he was not the hero they had both pretended...
The world outside was muffled. The chirps from the forest were quiet, then quieter, then gone.
She woke to a screech.
Shadow at her window. There was a man. A huge man, a killer—whoever’d taken those girls—Katya had slipped her bare arms out of her sleeping bag overnight, and she froze that way, half-unwrapped, terrified. A pane of glass away from danger. Her shirt was twisted. Her chest was pounding. It was almost light out. Not a man—a bear.
A brown bear on its hind legs. Scraping noises came from the roof over her head. The bear fell heavy on all fours beside her door, and dust puffed from its fur. It stepped forward, reached the front of the car, and stood again, its paws pushed to the navy metal of Katya’s Suzuki.
From the other side of the windshield, pressed back hard on her seat, she could see its claws, each one huge and yellow and savage, resting on the hood.
“Max,” she said through stiff lips.
He was breathing heavily beside her. The bear lowered its enormous head and extended a white-flecked tongue. It gave a long lick to the car’s hood, where she’d laid out the salmon the night before. Her fault.
Max was shifting. His sleeping bag rustled but she could not turn to see. The bear kept dragging its face across the car. Max took her hand, and her breath caught. She felt his heartbeat in his fingers, and her own pulse, in her throat, in her mouth.
Their fire was long out. The trees around them were black brushstrokes against a powder sky. In this grainy dawn, the bear was hyperreal, saturated with color, its face dirty and snout bleached and eyes shining through the dimness.
One massive paw drew back across the hood. From under its claws, the terrible screeching came again.
Max released his grip on her. Shifted his hand up. Touched the center of the steering wheel. They sat.
“Yes?” he whispered.
The bear hadn’t yet looked up at them. She couldn’t swallow. Max waited, his hand hovering over her lap, until she was able to speak again.
“Yes,” she said.
He pressed, and the horn exploded in noise. The bear flew back from the car. It hurried away awkwardly on two legs—a giant baby—then twisted onto all fours and ran faster than she could’ve imagined into the trees. Before the horn had finished blaring, the animal was gone in the darkness. And Max was laughing.
He opened his door and fell out, dragging himself free from the bag. “Holy shit,” he said from the ground, which was streaked white with frost. Katya was trapped in her seat. In his thin T-shirt, Max came around the front of her car to peer at the silver scratches in the paint. “Holy shit!” He looked through the windshield at her. His face was bright and brilliant. “Katyush, it took your antenna!”
She leaned forward, but the horn beeped again and she jerked back. “It—” She opened her door and reached up, feeling the snapped-off place where her car’s antenna had been. If they had slept in the tent? “Oh my God,” she said. She was trembling.
He couldn’t stop laughing. He was moving so quickly. She, meanwhile, was stuck, she didn’t trust her legs, she couldn’t stand, but only Katya or Max needed to be competent at a time, and for now he was the one. He looked wonderful doing it. He pulled her fingers off the antenna socket. Her body was cold with late-arriving fear; his mouth was hot. With both arms around his neck, she clutched him. She touched without stopping. She lifted her hips off the seat and he pushed her sleeping bag down. Against his cheek, she said the word love, she said love, but he covered her lips with his. She let the rest go.