It’s not the North I had in mind when I started this blog, but I have to recommend this amazing work of fiction set in Russia’s Kamchatka peninsula.
Julia Phillips’s Disappearing Earth tells the story of two young Russian girls who go missing. The book spans one year, one chapter per month, with each chapter visiting a different character who’s been affected in some way by the disappearance: a schoolgirl no longer allowed out in the evenings, a witness to the abduction, a young woman whose boyfriend now keeps close tabs on her. A key subplot includes another young woman who has disappeared who is not Russian but a member of the Even Indigenous group and whose disappearance garners much less popular attention.
The final chapter reveals what happened to the girls.
All of the stories are about women. All reference the rapid changes in life from the Soviet era to the briefly exhilarating post-Soviet time to the strongman era now in place. All depict a surprisingly modern and western society, with cellphones and Facebook, environmental groups and camping. All show these women to be under the thumb of a persistent, barely questioned patriarchy.
Phillips is a storyteller. Most of her chapters were previously published as short stories, which makes them richly satisfying on their own. Read together, the characters move from the background to the foreground and vice versa, giving the reader a sense of discovery. The book has the feel of Russianness, which I can’t describe other than to say that fate is mentioned, the moral themes are large, and the stories are so thick and detailed that they cast a spell on you almost immediately, taking you to that Russian place far away (Russian fairy tales always go far away instead of long ago. This book does that.)
Kamchatka is the mountainous, forested, volcano-ridden peninsula that sticks out of Russia’s easternmost point near Alaska and Japan. It’s capital, Petropavlovsk-Kamchatsky, has about 200,000 people. A few of its smaller communities are connected by a road; the rest are accessible by air only. People wanting to leave the capital for anywhere else on the planet must travel by boat or plane.
It’s not that cold there — the Sea of Okhotsk and the Pacific Ocean on either side mean it’s only about -10C in the capital in the dead of winter, and might reach -20C in the northern settlements. To people in the capital, the North refers to the settlements farther north. That is to say, this isn’t Siberia, or the Arctic. Latitude-wise, it’s closer to Scotland.
But it’s remote. Unique. I think we could also say: to outsiders, poorly understood.
One of the things northerners in Canada are always trying to remind people in the south is that, to quote Yellowknife mayor Mark Heyck during a live national TV broadcast, “People live here!” This book does that and more.