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Discussion questions for ‘Disappearing Earth’

Our April 2020 pick for the PBS NewsHour-New York Times book club is Julia Phillips’ “Disappearing Earth.” Become a member of the Now Read This book club by joining our Facebook group, or by signing up to our newsletter. Learn more about the book club here.

Below are questions to help guide your discussions as you read the book over the next month. You can also submit your own questions for Julia Phillips on our Google form. Phillips will answer reader questions on the PBS NewsHour broadcast at the end of the month.

WARNING: Spoiler alert on questions further down

  1. How does setting and place play a role in this story? What did you think of the way Phillips describes Kamchatka?
  2. Does the geography of Kamchatka play a part in some residents’ attitudes toward outsiders?
  3. The officials tasked with investigating the disappearance of the Golosovsky sisters ask several times if the suspect was Tajik, even though the witness can’t recall. What did you make of their efforts to identify the suspect by ethnicity early on?
  4. When observing the abundance of attention the police give to the sisters’ disappearance in comparison to Lilia, Phillips writes that Chander is onto a “deep common knowledge, an ache that was native.” What is the author referring to?
  5. What did you make of the way Lilia is described? Why does her disappearance seem to be forgotten by some members of the community?
  6. At one point, one of Zoya’s friends tells her, “It’s only after Kamchatka opened to outsiders that we started to see any crime.” Why does this make her uncomfortable?
  7. How does the author address the concept of “the other” in both the relationships and setting of the story? What did you make of the way some characters grappled with xenophobia within their communities?
  8. Alla Innokentevna is deeply affected by her daughter Lilia’s disappearance. Why do Alla and her other daughter, Natasha, have different ideas about the way Lilia disappeared?
  9. Gender and power dynamics play a role in many of these characters’ stories. Are there certain examples that stand out to you?
  10. Did you see parallels between the issues facing indigenous communities depicted in this book and those in North America?
  11. One character, Ksyusha, feels torn between her Russian boyfriend, Ruslan, and the boy from her dance troupe, Chander. What worlds and values does each character represent?
  12. “The police will hurt you, if they get the chance,” one line from the book reads. How does Phillips address authority figures throughout the novel?
  13. How do characters remember Kamchatka before the Soviet Union fell? How did the community change when the Communist regime fell out of power?
  14. What does Marina’s work for Russian state media suggest about her place within the class hierarchy of Kamchatka?
  15. The novel is interwoven with characters connected to the crime. What did you think of the structure? How does Phillips use the crime to address other themes and issues?
  16. Did you feel tensions between the Golosovsky and Solodikov families were resolved by the end of the novel? Were you satisfied with the ending of the book?

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