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Lark and Termiteby Jayne Anne Phillips
This is the story of 17-year-old Lark and her fierce devotion to her disabled brother, nicknamed Termite. It's also the story of their family: proud Aunt Nonie, who raises them; Robert, Termite's father, killed in the Korean War; and their wayward mother, Lola. Time is presented in a fluid, mingled fashion, as the past continues to have consequences in the present. Jayne Anne Phillips writes dazzling, tactile prose that engages all five senses, and here she presents a novel with true staying power, one that lingers in the mind well after the last page is turned.
"Jayne Anne Phillips writes with all five senses, paying attention — as few writers do — to sight, sound, taste, touch and smell in nearly every sentence of her tightly constructed, extraordinary new novel, Lark and Termite. On page after page she evokes the sound of machine guns turning on their pivots, the smell of soap on a big sister's hands, light that goes purple with an oncoming storm, the sweetness of divinity frosting or the acridity of bloodied water, and the balm of a lover's touch. The result, her first book in nine years, is a powerful reading experience, at once poetic and electrifying." Heller McAlpin, Newsday (read the entire Newsday review)
Synopses & Reviews
A rich, wonderfully alive novel from one of our most admired and best-loved writers, her first book in nine years. Lark and Termite is set during the 1950's in West Virginia and Korea. It is a story of the power of loss and love, the echoing ramifications of war, family secrets, dreams and ghosts, and the unseen, almost magical bonds that unite and sustain us.
At its center, two children: Lark, on the verge of adulthood, and her brother, Termite, a child unable to walk and talk but filled with radiance. Around them, their mother, Lola, a haunting but absent presence; their aunt Nonie, a matronly, vibrant woman in her fifties, who raises them; and Termite's father, Corporal Robert Leavitt, who finds himself caught up in the chaotic early months of the Korean War.
Told with deep feeling, the novel invites us to enter into the hearts and thoughts of the leading characters, even into Termite's intricate, shuttered consciousness. We are with Leavitt, trapped by friendly fire alongside the Korean children he tries to rescue. We see Lark's dreams for Termite and her own future, and how, with the aid of a childhood love and a spectral social worker, she makes them happen. We learn of Lola's love for her soldier husband and her children, and unravel the mystery of her relationship with Nonie. We discover the lasting connections between past and future on the night the town experiences an overwhelming flood, and we follow Lark and Termite as their lives are changed forever.
There are books you recommend to everybody, and then there are books you share cautiously, even protectively. Jayne Anne Phillips' "Lark and Termite" is that second kind, a mysterious, affecting novel you'll want to talk about only with others who have fallen under its spell. On the surface, nothing about the West Virginia family in "Lark and Termite" seems especially noteworthy, except perhaps the... Washington Post Book Review (read the entire Washington Post review) consistency of their misfortune, but the author reveals their tangled secrets in such a profound and intimate way that these ordinary, wounded people become both tragic and magnificent. Phillips has garnered plenty of praise in the past, but she's a slow writer by today's book-a-year standard, and she has made us wait almost a decade since her most recent novel, "MotherKind." The product of that labor is this strangely discordant story of violence and passion, affection and longing. It takes place during two very different Julys — 1950 and 1959 — in two very different places. The first page drops us immediately into the early days of the Korean War. Devastating losses have pushed Cpl. Robert Leavitt quickly up the ranks, and now, as the North Koreans advance, he commands a thinly stretched platoon charged with evacuating refugees. In the ensuing chaos, American fighter pilots strafe the peasants under his charge and send them scurrying into a tunnel, where they're pinned down by panicked U.S. servicemen. Phillips' story is inspired by the alleged No Gun Ri massacre, which was the subject of the Associated Press' controversial Pulitzer Prize-winning expose in 2000, but there's nothing polemic about her riveting portrayal of that event. She's interested only in the waste of war and the heroism of young Cpl. Leavitt, who continues caring for the doomed refugees despite his own injuries. "He sees that war never ends," she writes. "It's all one war despite players or location, war that sleeps dormant for years or months, then erupts and lifts its flaming head to find regimes changed, topography altered, weaponry recast." Knowing what transpired at No Gun Ri saps none of the suspense from this gripping scene because Phillips keeps a tight focus on Leavitt's interaction with a young Korean girl and her blind brother. As the three of them struggle to survive, Leavitt's thoughts drift back to the vibrant bar singer he married just before shipping out, and he senses, correctly, that she's giving birth to a son in the States on this very day. Through that mesmerizing war tale is woven the other story, set in West Virginia in 1959. Leavitt's now 9-year-old son, nicknamed Termite, is severely physically and mentally handicapped, unable to speak or walk. He's cared for by his tireless aunt and his devoted 17-year-old half sister, Lark. Phillips narrates in each of these three characters' voices, carefully revealing the complicated, sad history of their makeshift family. Lark is determined to care for her half brother no matter how that burden might constrain her own life. She never accepts the discouraging diagnoses about his mental perceptions, and she realizes that he's all she has left of her vanished mother. "From the time I was a kid," she says, "I thought his head was heavy because there was so much in it he couldn't tell or say. That everything had stayed in him, whether he recognized the pictures or not. That he'd kept all the words I couldn't call up, our mother's words and words about her. Words from before we were born, what I heard until I was three and forgot." Lark's aunt, a single woman with no kids of her own, is doing the best she can by her sister's children, but past betrayals have made her wary of accepting help from anyone, even her hardworking boyfriend, who seems willing to wait forever to regain her trust. But she's more concerned with the problem of giving Lark a normal life while keeping Termite from being institutionalized. A nosey social worker keeps poking around, offering helpful advice and a new wheelchair, but the aunt is deeply suspicious. In the novel's most surreal and lyrical sections, Termite describes the patchwork of sounds, images and meanings trapped in his inert body. All this takes place as a violent storm threatens to flood the town, a calamity that eventually brings long-buried secrets to the surface and washes away the family's tenuous structure. I know it sounds like too much is going on in "Lark and Termite," but these disparate elements resonate with each other in a most captivating manner. It's confusing only in the way anything truly profound can be. On one level, Phillips is writing a kind of family mystery, and the slowly interconnecting revelations about how Lark and Termite ended up in their aunt's care are thoroughly engrossing, charged with pathos and a surprising degree of eroticism. At another level, though, Phillips is doing something strange and mystical. There's a subtle sympathy between the Korean War story and the events that take place exactly nine years later. Haunting echoes and repetitions overcome the differences in time and place: The Korean girl and her blind brother whom Leavitt tries to save display an uncanny resemblance to Lark and Termite; the threat bearing down on the refugees in the tunnel is a striking reflection of the storm about to destroy Winfield, W.Va.; and in both worlds, self-sacrificing compassion manages to overcome the barriers imposed by cruelty or language or even death. This isn't merely a matter of stylistic experimentation, a kind of Appalachian magical realism. With her striking mixture of hallucinatory poetry and gritty realism, Phillips is trying to articulate the transcendence of love, the sort of unity among deeply devoted people that reverberates beneath the rational world. As the novel moves toward a crescendo of harrowing revelations and brutal confrontations, Phillips surprises us again with another disorienting touch of mysticism and a finale that mingles despair and triumph, naivete and spiritual insight, a startling demonstration of "how lightning fast things can go right or wrong." Ron Charles is a senior editor of The Washington Post Book World. He can be reached at charlesr(at symbol)washpost.com. Reviewed by Ron Charles, Washington Post Book World (Copyright 2006 Washington Post Book World Service/Washington Post Writers Group)
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"What a beautiful, beautiful novel this is — so rich and intricate in its drama, so elegantly written, so tender, so convincing, so penetrating, so incredibly moving. I can declare without hesitation or qualification that Lark and Termite is by far the best new novel I've read in the last five years or so." Tim O'Brien
"This novel is cut like a diamond, with such sharp authenticity and bursts of light." Alice Munro
"Lark and Termite is extraordinary and it is luminous. This is not simply classic Jayne Anne Phillips. This is something far more extraordinary. It is an astounding feat of the imagination. It is the best novel I've read this year." Junot Díaz
"Jayne Anne Phillips's intricate, deeply felt new novel reverberates with echoes of Faulkner, Woolf, Kerouac, McCullers and Michael Herr's war reporting, and yet it fuses all these wildly disparate influences into something incandescent and utterly original." New York Times
"Moving between Leavitt's perilous situation — his unit has taken refuge with some South Koreans in a railroad tunnel after being pinned down by friendly fire — and his hardscrabble family in Winfield, West Virginia, where a life-changing natural disaster strikes, Phillips lovingly and dramatically captures intimate and historic parallels between these disparate places.
"In one startling passage, Lark says about Termite, as they sit in the yard of Nonie's house in the 'still and flat' day. 'He never looks at his fingers but I always think he hears or knows something through them.' It seems to me that Phillips has always written this way too — right through her amazing fingers into the astonished world." Elle Magazine
Phillips's first novel in nine years is a rich, many-layered work. Set in the 1950s in West Virginia and Korea, it is a story of the power of loss and love, the echoing ramifications of war, family secrets, dreams and ghosts, and the unseen, almost magical bonds that unite and sustain families.
About the Author
Jayne Anne Phillips is the author of three previous novels and two collections of widely anthologized stories. She is the recipient of a Guggenheim Fellowship, two National Endowment for the Arts Fellowships, a Bunting Fellowship, a Howard Foundation Fellowship. and an Academy Award in Literature (1997) from the American Academy of Arts and Letters. Phillips is currently professor of English and director of the MFA Program at Rutgers-Newark, the State University of New Jersey.
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