Reviewed by Heller McAlpin
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.
Like her first novel, Machine Dreams (1986), Lark and Termite is about the outrage of war and its effects on a family in small-town West Virginia. "People forget that a soldier's death goes on for years -- for a generation, really," a bereft wife reflects.
In Machine Dreams, a beloved brother goes missing in Vietnam. Lark and Termite concerns the confused, early days of the Korean War, but as Phillips' hero, 21-year-old Cpl. Robert Leavitt, observes, "war never ends; 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."
Writing from Leavitt's perspective, Phillips re-creates the horrors of the No Gun Ri massacre of late July 1950, when Americans fired on their own troops and South Korean refugees in North Chungchong Province, South Korea. Leavitt, a jazz trumpeter who enlists for what he thought would be a year in occupied Japan, is hit in the spine while trying to help a young Korean girl carry her blind brother and aged aunt to safety. Seeking cover in a railroad tunnel, he realizes they'll never get out alive and hallucinates through his pain and rage about his 29-year-old pregnant wife, Lola, due any day.
Lark and Termite alternates between Leavitt in Korea in 1950 and Lola's family in Winfield, W.Va., exactly nine years later. Lola's older sister, Nonie, has raised both of Lola's children: Lark, born in 1942 from an earlier liaison we eventually learn about, and Leavitt's son, born in Louisville, Ky., on the day his father dies. He's called Termite because he was as small as a mite when he was handed over to Nonie a year later, though his half-sister, Lark, thinks it's because her severely handicapped brother is "in himself like a termite's in a wall."
Phillips pulls off parallels and mirroring between her two time frames that would seem heavy-handed with a less skillful writer. As if he's taken his father's hits, Termite is hydrocephalic, visually impaired and unable to walk because his spine didn't close properly. Lark, however, accepts him with enthusiasm, a gift from her missing mother. She's as attentive as Leavitt's Korean girl is to her handicapped brother, pulling Termite in his wagon to the nearby railroad yards -- whose curved tunnel evokes No Gun Ri. She pretends every day is his birthday, baking him elaborate cakes. "I'm so used to being with Termite, he feels like alone to me. He's like a hum that always hums so the edge of where I am is blunt and softened," Lark says.
At night, after Nonie comes home from working at her boyfriend Charlie's restaurant, Lark attends secretarial school. A boy next door adds spice to her life, but keeping Termite out of heartless institutions is her raison d'etre. As for Nonie, she won't live with Charlie as long as his nasty mother is alive, but they've been in a loving relationship for decades. Watching Lark trying to entice Termite into his new wheelchair, Nonie comments, "It slays me. So much was taken from that child before he was even born, yet he always seems to want exactly what he has."
Phillips' language is breathtaking and her narrative structure flawless as she shifts her focus among Lark, Termite, Nonie and Leavitt. We come to love these characters as fervently as they love each other. Phillips plays their story like an elaborate jazz composition, both soulful and intense, building to a devastating flood in Winfield, and planes that approach No Gun Ri "like planets on rotation, a timed bloodletting with different excuses. Part of a long music."
You'd be hard-pressed to find tension captured more sensuously. Lark observes, "Everything alive is huddled at the roots of the plants, or burrowed into the earth a few protective inches," while Nonie notes, "The storm has squeezed daylight to a thin shine."
Thirty years after her startling book of stories, Black Tickets, Lark and Termite is a gorgeous, stunning testament to Phillips' remarkable talent and vision.
Heller McAlpin reviews books for a variety of publications, including Newsday and the Boston Globe.
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