With her debut novel, Disappearing Earth (Knopf, $26.95), Julia Phillips shows she is an author to watch. With a surprising ease and deftness, Phillips transports the reader to the rugged and frozen terrain of the Kamchatka Peninsula in northeastern Russia. One August afternoon the Golosovsky sisters, age eight and ten, go missing. Each beautifully written chapter of the ensuing story takes place over the course of one month during the year after their disappearance. This story is not your usual mystery thriller. It is instead an examination of the ripples, at times barely noticeable, a tragedy can leave on a seemingly tranquil community. Each chapter is told from the point of view of a woman, most of whom don’t have a deep connection to the Golosovsky family. Yet each has been touched by this mystery in however small a way. As each woman’s story unfolds, Phillips reminds us that with every ripple there is a preceding point of impact. While the sisters’ disappearance contributes, Phillips shows that the real impact comes from the realities of life women face on the Kamchatka Peninsula: violence, betrayal, discrimination, mistrust, poverty, and physical hardship form the true tragedy here. This is an amazing story that will leave you yearning for more.
In vignettes that range from warm and nostalgic to brutally realistic, Elif Shafak, one of Turkey’s most prominent writers, tells the story of a woman who started life in 1947 as Leyla Afi fe Kamile, the daughter of an Islamic polygamist, and ended it in 1990 as Tequila Leila, one of Istanbul’s many murdered sex workers. As her body cools in a dumpster, Leila, exhibiting the “persistent brain activity in people who had just died,” recalls key moments. Triggered by a Proustian rush of smells and told in seemingly random order, the memories that surface in Leila’s final 10 Minutes, 38 Seconds in This Strange World (Bloomsbury, $27) describe her early years in a rural town, dominated by folklore and misogyny; her escape from abuse, an increasingly strict father, and an arranged marriage at age 16; testify to her strength and resilience; and, above all, celebrate the five friends who helped her survive on Istanbul’s unforgiving street of brothels. All as marginalized as Leila, what remains of this devoted group—the gifted son of a woman judged to be too independent, a trans woman, a Somali refugee, a Lebanese person of short stature, and the firebrand communist she marries—bands together to rescue Leila’s story from the anonymity of her body’s numbered grave in the cemetery of the companionless.
Lucy Ellman pushes her characters and her readers to their limits with this explosive stream-of-consciousness narrative; she tackles what appear to be mundane subjects with adroit and exquisite skill. Despite its notable length, Ducks, Newburyport (Biblioasis, $22.95), a fi nalist for the Booker Prize, is made up of only a handful of long, boisterous sentences that seem to focus on everything and nothing: our narrator’s children, the climate, Emily Dickinson, pie, a rage that prevails as inconsolable in our current political atmosphere, her mother, her life during and after cancer. Ellman toggles beautifully between the noise of fl amboyant prose and sparse, delicate phrases. The stream-of-thought narrative grants us the privilege of unadulterated access to our narrator; this is a novel that begs to be intellectually interacted with, but in order to do so successfully, you’ll have to give in to the narrative and let Ellman take you with her.