Each chapter deals with a different set of people — parents, friends, teachers, strangers — looking at how the case of the missing girls affects them, whether directly or at a tangent. Sometimes the girls are central to the tale, or they might be mentioned only for a few lines, almost in passing. I found myself eager for those moments of connection to arrive. This is a great structure: intriguing, tantalising, perfectly executed. Arising from this central crime, in fits and starts, a portrait of a people and a land comes slowly into focus. I was reminded of the concept albums of my prog rock youth — a series of songs on a theme. I can see the record sleeve in my mind: The Village of the Lost.
I was so absorbed I forgot to take notes for most of the first half, not so much because of the tension of the search as because each new domestic world was deftly conjured and fresh. We are in Petropavlovsk, on Russia’s far eastern Kamchatka peninsula, where it’s a very long way to any other city... But there are difficulties with setting a novel in a nation, community and language foreign to the writer and to almost all Anglophone readers. The concerns of this book are timely but also culturally specific – the narratives of gender, violence and trauma are distinctively those of liberal America... [Phillips] can certainly write: characters, dialogue, pacing, the fine balancing of what is shown and what goes unsaid are all done with aplomb... [But] [t]here’s always a conflict, of course, between “othering” and appropriation, between believing that differences of culture, history and language render groups of people incomprehensible to each other and insisting that the whole world is made in the image of one’s own assumptions. No individual book will resolve that contradiction, but one set so firmly at the centre of the dilemma needs at least to recognise the problem.