The beach is in the city center, and on a rare warm afternoon in an otherwise chilly summer, it is packed. So the Golosovsky girls walk down the shoreline until they find a spot they can have to themselves.
There 8-year-old Sophia tests the limits of safety by stepping a little farther into the Pacific than she should, and her watchful sister, Alyona, older by three years, quickly snaps her right back into line. Against the danger of drowning, they are reasonably well defended. But against the menace of friendly predators, they are alarmingly unguarded.
This is Aug. 4, the day the girls will vanish, last seen getting into the car of a stranger they believe needs their help. Lured by sympathy for this apparently injured man, his promise of a quick ride home, and the thrill of embarking on a small disobedient adventure, these children who of course know better nonetheless climb in.
“Where to?” the man asks, as if he has any intention of taking them there.
Their kidnapping is the catalyzing event in Julia Phillips’s absorbing and extraordinarily well crafted debut novel, “Disappearing Earth.” Set in the remote Russian peninsula of Kamchatka, a landscape of volcanoes and vast tundra nine time zones east of Moscow, it is a many-stranded crime story. It is also a complex portrait of clashing cultures — both white and indigenous — that have a common denominator in misogyny.
The sprawling nature of the tale is evident from the annotated list of principal characters laid out at the top, helpfully grouped by family. There’s also a map of Kamchatka, with the girls’ home city, Petropavlovsk-Kamchatsky, in the south. Farther north are Palana and Esso, villages where some of the other characters live. Unfamiliar territory, probably, for the American reader, but Phillips makes an inviting and subtle guide.
After the opening, the novel pulls away from Alyona and Sophia. It will be a long while before we glimpse them again, and before we meet their mother, Marina Alexandrovna, who has raised the girls alone since her divorce. Once an award-winning investigative journalist, she traded in that career for a more family-friendly job. “She wrote lies for the party, which paid the bills.”
Marina blames herself for the loss of her girls, but she blames her ex-husband in Moscow, too: “she should have never left them alone that day; he should have never left them in Kamchatka to begin with; she should have taught their daughters to stay away from dangerous men; he should have shown them what a trustworthy one looks like.”
Phillips draws intricately detailed characters, most of them female, and we quickly come to know them intimately. Yet her primary interest is in social forces — especially those that nurture dangerous men while devaluing girls and women who seem too independent, too headstrong, too sexual.
In month-by-month chapters that at first appear only delicately linked, she zooms in on lives around the peninsula that have been touched in some way by the widely publicized, ineptly investigated abduction of the two little white girls.
Among them are the family, neighbors, and schoolmates of Lilia, an indigenous teenager who has been missing from Esso for three years, not that the authorities bothered to take much notice. Unequal justice is only one of the manifestations of bigotry on the peninsula, and one of several clear parallels to our own society.
Lilia had a reputation for wildness, and the police told her mother, Alla Innokentevna, that she’d run away. Lilia’s older sister, Natasha, even subscribes to this theory, which is easier than fearing that someone hurt Lilia.
But the constant threat of harm hangs over all of the girls and women in “Disappearing Earth,” and most of them adjust their own behavior in response. The boys and men around them do no such thing, though the threat is distinctly male.
Ksyusha, a college student in Petropavlovsk, might as well be on a long-distance leash for all the tabs her controlling older boyfriend, back in Esso, keeps on her. Ostensibly, he’s been worried for her safety ever since Lilia went away, and Ksyusha placates him by largely staying home. So what if his anxieties choke off her freedom?
The guys — including Kolya, the doltish detective whose career suffers the longer the Golosovsky sisters remain unfound — tend not to come off terribly well. There are enough creeps scattered through these pages that you may find yourself sizing up several in turn, wondering which is the kidnapper.
Ambiguity about the fates of Alyona, Sophia, and Lilia allows room for both hope and dread, and Phillips skillfully spins out that suspense. Like Alyona, who on the beach tells her little sister a scary story, Phillips knows that imagined danger can be fun. But she pokes around beneath it, too, to ask why we thrill at female peril, and just exactly what our problem is.
By Julia Phillips
Knopf, 256 pp., $26.95