Lark & Termite by Jayne Anne Phillips (Knopf)
Jayne Anne Phillips has a gift for capturing the tragedy and twisted grandeur of seemingly ordinary peoples’ lives, elevating their stories to the level of myth. In her books Black Tickets, Shelter, Machine Dreams, and Motherland, she has turned her obsessions — the relentless pull of memory and desire, the loss of female innocence, the child’s struggle to decipher truth in a world of duplicitous adults, and the devastation of war on families — into hauntingly honest, often surreal portraits of American life.
Lark & Termite, Phillips’ first novel in nine years, encompasses all of these obsessions. The story begins on July 26, 1950, the day Corporal Robert Leavitt is killed in Korea (the same day that his son, Termite, is born disabled in West Virginia) and ends on July 31, 1959, the day the town where Termite lives is hit by a flood of biblical proportions. In his house, "water stands evenly in every room, a foot deep up the legs of chairs, opaque and still as a mirror."
Central to the action are Termite and his strong-willed, 17-year-old half-sister, Lark. She alone can communicate with Termite, but only the reader knows that although he is unable to speak or move, Termite’s preternatural sensitivity to sound and touch and an extraordinary intuition allow him to access everything in the living world: "The wagon crushes a path and the grass parts sharp around him," Phillips writes. "He hears the field growing, surging like an engine, flung erect in the heat, and he opens his hands to touch the slow hot buzz that runs to every root."
What is stunning about Lark & Termite is Phillips’ ability to seamlessly weave in and out of her characters’ consciousnesses. She moves from Lark and Termite to Lola, their ill-equipped mother, and to Lola’s sister, Nonie, who provides for the children and attempts to shield them from family secrets. We also enter the mind of Leavitt, the victim of friendly fire. Through the layering of memory and the use of rich poetic language, Phillips creates a dark, dreamlike portrait of a family who, despite inheriting the spiritual and psychological legacies of war, will, like America itself, rise above.
Lark & Termite is a tour de force of history, imagination and invention. It is resonant and profound, a masterpiece worth waiting for.
Elissa Schappell is the author of the novel Use Me and coeditor of the anthology Money Changes Everything.
Originally published in MORE magazine, February 2009.