This National Book Award Finalist is one that’s been on my TBR since I read the synopsis…and, honestly, since I realized that I was well on my way to reading all the NBA finalists for 2019. That’s not usually a goal that I have, but since I’m close to it, I kind of want to go for it and see if I agree with the winner after I finish them all. So far, I’ve read and reviewed Trust Exercise, Black Leopard, Red Wolf, and Sabrina & Corina. After Disappearing Earth, the only one left is The Other Americans (which is also on the longlist for this year’s Aspen Prize for Literature, which is fast becoming my favorite award and I want to read all those finalists when they’re announced as well). Anyways, the point is, I was on the library waitlist for this one for a few weeks and jumped in as soon as my hold was ready for pickup!
The novel opens with the kidnapping of two young sisters on a summer morning on the remote Siberian peninsula of Kamchatka. Each chapter is told in a successive month, and follows a character that lives in the area who is somehow involved in the search for the girls or is otherwise affected by the kidnapping, in myriad ways, both major and minor.
This is such a fascinating novel, as it reads more like a series of vignettes that anything else, yet by the end, the threads that connect each of the perspectives and experiences, however small they may be, are elucidated with the finest detail. I have read other books that are structured in a similar manner, but this was by far the deftest execution of the style I have ever experienced. Phillips’ handle on the even the smallest elements is spectacular – the way it is all woven together so that even the characters’ sections that are the most removed from the central “mystery” of the plot, the missing sisters, are incredibly compelling is so impressive. And beyond how engaging each vignette is (separately and as part of the whole), the writing itself is something special. I was emotionally invested from the very beginning, with even the short first chapter from the sister’s perspective getting me deep in the feels (like, super deep – it was so tense and unsettling, setting the mood for the novel early). And even though we really only “meet” each character once from their own perspective, and some not even that much, there was just so much life in each of them. The crisp purposefulness of the words really belies the searing profundity of humanity that is delved into with each vignette.
Beyond the writing and the style, there are so many other things about the atmosphere of this novel that were just stunning, so I’m going to go ahead and mash all my thoughts about that into this one paragraph, even if they don’t really flow/go together super well. #sorrynotsorry First, the way Phillips captures the suffocating feeling of mundane everyday life, the yearning for something more/greater, with the simultaneous daily inertia, the feeling of lack of options to make any tangible changes, that keeps you in place is just…wow. I felt that feeling on a visceral level. The way that such a small, insular community, the land/nature of the peninsula, the intense nationalism and classism of the people (and consequently, the commentary on whose lives matter “more” in juxtaposition of the general bureaucratic dismissal of almost everyone) was portrayed with both perfect specificity to Kamchatka and recognizability on a universal level. The overall vibe of loss and sorrow and guilt is overwhelming throughout the novel, in the best way, from so many different perspectives, depending on the way the character in question is related to the disappearance. Relatedly, the open-endedness throughout the novel about the fate of the girls, the slowly creeping resignation that they are dead/lost forever, is wrenchingly evocative in its hopelessness. In context, that’s exactly the feeling I wanted while reading this, and I sank into it. And last, that ending, THAT ENDING. I had settled into what I thought was coming, was ready and anticipating it, and would have been happy with that. But then everything was flipped up-side-down, head-over-heels, in a surprise twist that was powerfully creepy and incredibly haunting. It was such a twist for me, emotionally, that I reread the last chapter like three times, so make sure I had it right. The unexpectedness of it shattered me, left me with that nauseous feeling after getting punched in the gut. So awful, yet so good!
I hope you can tell by now how much I liked this book. It’s my favorite of the 2019 NBA finalists so far (and Sabrina & Corina was one of my Top Ten Books from last year). The connection of these vignettes through plot, theme, and metaphor, the way they all converged towards the end, the small details that I partially picked up along the way but had to go back and look for again once I finished, the precise and melancholy mood/writing, the humanity of it all… I just have to sit back, heave a great big sigh, and slow clap for Phillips. I cannot believe this is a debut novel and now I’m over here eagerly awaiting what she does next!
A few quotes/ passages I marked as I was reading:
“How good Olya would feel to keep this secret. How safe it felt inside herself.”
“Her body flowed into the next step, the next, as easily as a river following its course. She was dancing well. She knew it. She moved as if these steps didn’t want a partner – as if she were fine on her own.”
“The sameness of each day, each year, acted like the endless reopening of a cut, scarring those summers into her memory.”
“Everyone looked better at a distance. Everyone sounded sweetest when you did not have to hear them talk too long. […] Loving someone close-up – that was difficult.”
“It hurts too much to break your own heart out of stupidity, to leave a door unlocked or a child untended and return to discover that whatever you value most has disappeared. No. You want to be intentional about the destruction. Be a witness. You want to watch how your life will shatter.”