I bought Disappearing Earth by Julia Phillips after flirting with it at bookstores for over a year. There was always something else a little more enthralling, or it was one of those very responsible, very adult bookstore trips where I didn’t buy anything. Last month, though, the stars—a paperback release, my remaining book funds, the whims of my literary heart—aligned, and I took it home.

It wasn’t the plot summary or the glowing reviews that kept me coming back. It was the setting, Russia’s remote Kamchatka Peninsula, and the corresponding snowy desolation on the cover. I have a persistent fascination with alien geography, and Disappearing Earth promised to introduce me to the very mountains, forests, and villages I had panned over at warp-speed on Google Maps dozens of times.

The novel proved as breathtaking as a Siberian winter, but between chapters I found myself thinking not only about the story but also about my own reading habits. What, exactly, was I loving about this book? And how could I find it again?

Some background: a few months ago, I was reading The Greenlanders by Jane Smiley. On paper, I should’ve adored this book. It takes place in the tiny Norse settlements in southern Greenland in the fourteenth century. It has all the stunning geography and all the careful attention to lonely social dynamics as Disappearing Earth, plus it was medieval! And yet I gave up halfway through, failing to love the book despite its checking every box I thought I had.

On the other hand, some of my absolute favorite recent reads—The Luminaries by Eleanor Catton, The Secret History by Donna Tartt, The Moor’s Account by Laila Lalami—have little in common. I can’t point to any character trope, plot structure, subgenre, prose style, or even setting and say “that’s what I like to read.” 

Plot and characters certainly don’t make or break a book for me. I skim too much—probably a bad habit from reading for school—and I often get a story’s threads twisted while tearing through the last hundred pages. And maybe it’s some deep-seated social ineptitude, but I have to try hard to describe characters’ fears or motivations or personalities with any precision. So what is it?

Disappearing Earth helped me crack the code. There’s some combination of setting, style, and structure that makes me loyal to a book, something that an English teacher might call “atmosphere” or “mood” but that I haven’t yet settled on a good word for.

In Phillips’s novel, the distant villages of Kamchatka echo the isolated but interconnected lives of the women who narrate the story. The sense of threat, communicated by short sentences and nervous dialogue, evokes the presence of mighty oceans and active volcanoes. Phillips’s commitment to describing and building community is like a mapmaker’s determination to get each bend in a forest river right. The unheard deserve hearing, the unsafe deserve safety, the forgotten deserve our imagination. 

There—that’s what I like in a book. The setting matters. It matches the authors’ words and the characters’ world. It’s not just a detailed and accurate representation of a place. It gives me what I can’t get in Kamchatka’s Wikipedia article. Reading the words becomes breathing the air.

There’s something a bit capital-R Romantic about this, of course. No book captures the “true Kamchatka,” least of all one by an American writer. Nor is there any “true Kamchatka” to be captured at all, because places and stories and people are all irreducible to simple narratives.

But that doesn’t negate this compulsion I feel to spend more and more time in Phillips’s Kamchatka, or Tartt’s Vermont, or Catton’s New Zealand mining towns, or Lalami’s indigenous American villages. A compulsion I tried but failed to feel about Smiley’s Greenland. I don’t know any better way to describe it, and I’m still learning to recognize it, much less wrestle with its ethics. What does it mean to love a real place that, to my provincial eyes, might as well be fictional? What am I loving when I love these books? 

As one of Phillips’s characters muses, “Everyone looked better at a distance.” Maybe everywhere too.

1 Comment

  1. Kyric Koning

    Ugh. The “why do I like this book” question is always a ringer. Like you, I’ve yet to find a truly satisfactory answer. Your musings strike a familiar chord in me though, and and beautiful. Love the tagline for this post too.

    Reply

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