this is one of those rare perfect books. the fact that it’s a debut only makes it more impressive, and no matter what this author writes next, i will be on it immediately.
i was fortunate enough to stumble upon a free arc of this, thinking-to-self, ‘this looks like it could be good,’ and then when i saw all the high praise it was receiving in its early reviews, i decided to bump it up the old arc-stack and see what all the fuss was about.
lemme tell you, the fuss is earned.
it takes place on russia’s kamchatka peninsula, and at its center is the disappearance of two little girls; sisters eight and eleven, who get into a stranger’s car and… vanish.
each chapter that follows carries the story forward a month – from the girls’ abduction in august to the following july, and each is told from a different character’s perspective. the disappearance worms its way into every chapter, but is usually only used to season the stories – how the situation affected different people who live in the area, most of whom had no direct connection with the girls themselves, and each chapter is gripping and fully-realized enough to stand alone as a short story.
it’s such an original way to tell a missing-kids narrative; using that same structure i love in Winesburg, Ohio – a smalltown short story cycle that both is and isn’t a novel, but this one has more specific touchpoints, and as time passes, the impact of the tragedy shifts the way any sensational news story shifts with the passing of time and proximity, slipping into cautionary tale or local legend, dredging up memories of earlier disappearances, giving way to ’where were you when…’ recollections, becoming a different kind of collective reference point.
most multiple POV books will pick a handful of characters and alternate between them, and it was a great moment of realization for me, about three chapters in, when i clocked to the, “oh, so we’re just not going to go back to that character’s POV at all, wow.” at first, i was a little disappointed, because i had become invested in particular voices, but with each chapter, i found myself making a whole new investment, and once i started approaching this more as a short story cycle, i appreciated it even more, because that’s just so freaking hard to pull off, and she does it remarkably well. characters do pop up again, but seen through someone else’s eyes, and these transitions and the recurring motifs are handled beautifully.
i admit to being a very ignorant person when it comes to culture and geography, and this book introduced me to a region i knew absolutely nothing about; phillips’ descriptions of the landscape, ethnic makeup, history, and social fabric of kamchatka was illuminating and engrossing and – without a drop of hyperbole on my part – masterful.
i loved this book so very much. her writing is flawless, the build is rich and textured, the ending is satisfying. my only (oh-so-minor) complaint is i wish she hadn’t dropped that mic in the final paragraph, because we knew without it being pointed out and i think it would have been more elegant to not call attention to it so explicitly.
but i mean, really – that’s not even a couple’s spat in the love i have for this book.
it is not to be missed.
a brilliant, brilliant debut. review to come.