Two recent reads!
I don’t tend to pick up books just because they’re pretty, but a beautiful cover definitely draws me in to looking at the synopsis more closely. Such was the case with Julia Phillips’s Disappearing Earth; add on the National Book Award shortlisting and some great reviews, and I was sold. I only wish I’d picked this one up sooner!
In the novel, two young girls disappear from a Russian city on the Kamchatka peninsula. Opinions are divided on what has happened to them- one woman reports seeing a man with the two girls at their last known location, but when she can’t provide the police with any further details even they doubt her claim. In a series of chapters each following a different woman in a different month of the year following the girls’ disappearance, a web of connected story lines from all over the peninsula slowly come together to resolve the mystery of the missing children.
“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.”
Disappearing Earth is a beautiful, brilliant book. The chapters read somewhat like individual short stories, though this is rather a novel of connected pieces. The frequent shifts of perspective may be jarring or disappointing for readers who prefer to follow a smaller cast more closely- though Phillips refers back to many previously mentioned characters, we don’t see much of them beyond the ends of their respective chapters. Fortunately, I found every new perspective as interesting as the last, and I thought that the emotion each chapter ended on segued nicely into the start of the next, a sense of quiet tension building steadily throughout the book across this set of self-contained arcs.
Though this is indeed a sort of mystery, it’s a slow-paced journey whose purpose is not the quick entertainment of a typical mystery/thriller (there’s no way of guessing the whodunnit before it is revealed, the criminal’s motives and actions go unexplored, and none of the characters other than the two missing girls seem to be in imminent danger) but instead a methodical unveiling of a culture- the challenges faced by the people living in this part of the world. Through these characters we see strong local prejudices, honored traditions that feel like trappings, critiques of insufficient police response to crime, and more. There’s so much sadness and frustration in this book, but Phillips paints this place with a respectful hand, one that sees room for change and hope for its future.
This is sure to be a divisive book, in that the mystery at its core makes it impossible to describe the novel without attracting a crowd looking for something flashier while Disappearing Earth is in fact very subtle. Readers drawn in by the missing girls of the premise may not find what they are looking for here, whereas others (like me) will delight in the small moments where the chapters intersect and the larger picture of a community at odds with itself shines through.
My reaction: 5 out of 5 stars. This has been one of my favorite reading experiences of the year so far. I read it as slowly as I could in order to savor it, while also finding myself virtually unable to set the book down.
The Snow Collectors, by Tina May Hall, was a February release that caught my eye last month. I grabbed a copy as soon as I added the title to my TBR because I knew otherwise I’d be waiting until next winter. Ironically, for the first time that I can really remember, we’re having an unusually early spring where I live so I actually missed out on reading it surrounded by snow anyway! Perhaps I would have liked it more in that weather.
In the novel, Henna has recently moved to an unnamed town on the US east coast, where a brutal winter is in full swing. Her family is long missing, presumed dead, and Henna has left all of her attachments behind to start fresh in a new place. Unfortunately, this place might not be any better than the last- she discovers a dead woman in the woods behind her house, and thus begins her hunt to solve two mysteries: that of the woman’s death, and that of the scrap of paper clutched in her hand, pertaining to an Arctic expedition from the 1850’s.
“No one knew if we would get another winter. Minute by minute, the world we rode was transformed, bone to coral, feather to web, ice to stone, and back again.”
This story is a very interesting collection of elements- an atmospheric Eastern winter, in a future not too far off (references to the extinction of bees and deserts where the Midwest had been presenting as some of the only clues that the setting isn’t present day), with a strong focus on a specific historical moment- the missing Franklin expedition, part of the search for a northwest passage. Henna thinks of herself as a sort of gothic heroine in this mystery, at times following and at others defying tropes of that genre. There’s also a bit of a magical/sci-fi element, in that Henna is skilled at dowsing water (and perhaps ancient clues) using only her body as a tool. She spends her days writing encyclopedia entries about water, her neighbor/best friend is mute, the police chief is mysterious but also a flirt, the other newcomer to town is the owner of an extinction show, and her sister’s unlikely hero of a dog, Rembrandt, is never far from the action. Oh, and at the heart of the Franklin expedition’s disappearance is the question of whether or not cannibalism has occurred, which lends the novel a macabre air.
“I rested my head on my hand, flipping through the notes, trying to estimate how many days of hunger it took to break a person, trying to imagine the dead men, lying huddled on the ice where they had fallen, their living compatriots too weak to bury them, the temptation of so much wasted meat.”
This read was a mix of extreme ups and downs for me. On the one had, I adored the writing, found so many of the individual elements fascinating, and was constantly curious about what these bizarre characters would do next. On the other, I thought the culprit was obvious from the beginning, did not understand why Franklin’s family would’ve cared so much about the possible cannibalism long after people had forgotten that they were even connected to Franklin, and found the resolution entirely anticlimactic and unsatisfactory. Unfortunately I was also reading this book on the days surrounding the Women’s Prize longlist announcement, and my desire to be reading those books was so great at the time that anything else I was reading was bound to suffer for the fact that my interest was simply elsewhere. Ultimately, while I enjoyed a lot of The Snow Collector‘s pieces, it didn’t quite manage to hold my attention as a narrative, though I can’t blame that entirely on this book.
Even though this one didn’t quite live up to expectations for me, I still found it a very interesting read, and recommend it to those who like unusual, somewhat dark books.
My reaction: 3 out of 5 stars. To be honest, I wavered between 3 and 4 here because this is a wonderful, weird little book with plenty of merit, though I didn’t end up enjoying it quite as much as I’d hoped to. I am glad I picked it up and am sure to remember it for a long time because I’ve read nothing else like it. I’d certainly like to try more of the author’s work.
Have you read or are you interested in either of these books?
The Literary Elephant