Criticism & Features

Year 2009: 30 Books

Lark and Termite, by Jayne Anne Phillips

By Jane Ciabattari

Each day leading up to the March 11 announcement of the 2009 NBCC award winners, Critical Mass highlights one of the thirty finalists. Today, NBCC board member and president Jane Ciabattari discusses fiction finalist Jayne Anne Phillips’s Lark and Termite (Knopf).

Jayne Anne Phillips’s Lark and Termite is an electrifying novel, a story of love, longing, and consequences so intense and sensually vivid that it feels as real as memory.

Phillips launches her intricately structured narrative quartet with a little-known moment in the Korean War–a massacre of civilians by U.S. military at No Gun Ri in July 1950 that was not reported until decades after the war. Corporal Robert Leavitt, the young soldier who narrates this episode, is pinned down with villagers, wounded by his own troops while helping a Korean family find cover in a railroad tunnel.

Leavitt is a battle-weary platoon leader, already aware that “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.”

Phillips shifts fluidly from Leavitt’s perspective at No Gun Ri to the voices of his wife Lola’s family living in a tiny West Virginia town in July 1959— Lark, Lola’s wise and feisty teenage daughter; Termite, Leavitt’s son with Lola, born on the day his father died, damaged at birth, but gifted with precocious insights, and Nonie, Lola’s  sister, who knows the missing pieces of her story. The three have cobbled together a family wound tight by daily care. Lark and Nonie are devoted to Termite, fending off the tentacles of Social Services that might take him away. While scraping by, they manage to be both tough and touching. “I’m so used to being with Termite, he feels like alone to me,” Lark muses while standing at the sink washing dishes. “He’s like a hum that always hums so the edge of where I am is blunt and softened.” A storm approaches; a flood threatens the town. One more disaster to endure. In an eerie mirroring of Leavitt’s universe, Lark pulls Termite to safety through a railroad tunnel as the sky darkens and the deluge begins.

In the netherworld of the mortally wounded, sensing the approach of a final monstrous act of war, Leavitt falls into a reverie about his wife Lola and their coming child that peaks in an explosion of poetic language near the end of the book. In a passage of near supernatural synchronicity, Termite, the uncanny child, experiences his father’s protective presence.

A lesser author would have faltered along the way, but Phillips sustains her spellbinding tale from beginning to end. Through the power of her generous imagination and gorgeous prose, the struggles of Lark and Termite, Nonie and Leavitt, are transmuted, yielding a novel of rare beauty.

Links: Lark and Termite reviewed by Michiko Kakutani in The New York Times; Kathryn Harrison in The New York Times Book Review; Laura Miller in Salon; Heller McAlpin in″>Newsday, an NBCC/Powell's Featured Review

Click here to read an excerpt from Lark and Termite