Disappearing Earth is startling in its extremes – Julia Phillips’s writing is disarmingly raw and unpretentious, and at the same time beautifully polished. Gentle and subtle, but sharp as a knife.

Phillips takes us to a small town on the harsh coastline of northeastern Russia’s Kamchatka Peninsula, where she lets us peer, chapter by chapter, into the lives of her various characters – each in some ways quite ordinary, and all the more real for it. It’s a story of two missing girls, but the story is not a straight line from mystery to resolution. And although each character’s own world eventually converges with the next, the connections never feel forced or contrived. After all, we are visiting a small community – everyone always knows everyone else; degrees of separation are limited. The word ‘verisimilitude’ comes to mind: the feeling that what we are reading is really real.

Too often, fiction authors try too hard to demonstrate their research – revealing their hand, regurgitating learned knowledge, telling instead of showing, leaving their ‘working out’ on the page. Though her postscript acknowledgements indicate extensive on-the-ground research, Phillips never succumbs to this temptation. Like the proverbial duck that glides effortlessly across the water, busy feet hidden below the surface, she creates an impossibly vivid world full of naturally complex characters, without revealing the hard work that went into creating them. Only after emerging at the end of the book do we realise how extraordinary that effort must have been – it’s a post-facto revelation, rather than a persistent distraction. All this is truly the sign of a master’s work, and all the more impressive for a debut novel.

By Olivia McDowell

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