It's been nine years since Jayne Anne Phillips' last book and almost 30 since the acclaimed author burst on the scene with her dazzling short-story collection Black Tickets. Like her previous work, Lark and Termite uses highly evocative, poetic language to explore the complexities of ordinary relationships—mothers, fathers, daughters, lovers—but this time, they're set against a wider backdrop of war and environmental destruction.
Lark and Termite tells two overlapping stories: the death of Robert Leavitt, a young soldier in Korea in 1950, and four days in the life of his severely handicapped son on the eve of a great flood nine years later. These two characters never meet, but their intuitive sense of one another fuels this intensely spiritual novel.
Termite and his half-sister Lark live with Nonie, their aunt and caregiver, in small-town West Virginia. Termite is unable to walk or talk, but the teenage Lark bears the burden of his care lightly, almost joyfully. Hovering over this family are the spirits of Termite's father and the children's mother, the unstable, enigmatic Lola, who could not take care of either child.
Using multiple narrators, Lark and Termite invites the reader to experience the perceptions, memories and desires of the characters. Phillips has a gift for narrative voice and shifting time, from the brisk no-nonsense tones of hard working Nonie to Leavitt's erotically charged recollections of Lola. Even Termite, in a literary nod to the character of Benjy in Faulkner's The Sound and the Fury, expresses himself in intense monologues of sensory observations. Events and actions echo and repeat themselves like a carnival hall of mirrors, and Phillips doesn't shy away from bold symbolism or her notion that the bonds of love—familial, erotic, paternal—can conquer time and space. Only once does the book step from the spiritual to what reads as a plot contrivance, and this change in direction strikes an artificial note. Still, one misstep is a small price to pay for any reader who welcomes Phillips' return to fiction.
Lauren Bufferd writes from Nashville.