Lark & Termite. By Jayne Anne Phillips. Knopf, 254 pp, $28, hardcover
Maybe you’re afraid of a cutesy title like Lark & Termite. After all, pairs of people with fanciful names—in this case motherless half-siblings, one of whom has some highly unusual abilities—only seem to exist in the realm of novels, don’t they? But fear not. Jayne Anne Phillips’s dreamy, suspenseful fourth novel is worlds away from the realm of cute.
Where are we then? And this is a “we” novel, drawing the reader so deeply inside that getting interrupted mid-chapter is like being snapped out of hypnosis. Actually, taking structural cues from—and sharing thematic turf with—William Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury, Phillips navigates headspaces, not chapters. The author engineers a dazzling magical mystery tour inside the noggin of nine-year-old “minimally hydrocephalic” Termite, “in himself, like a termite inside a wall”. “Eyes hard to the side and head tilted, fingers up and moving”, this child is exquisitely tuned to everything: a beetle besieged by ants in a gutter, or his soldier father trapped in a South Korean tunnel nine years before, at the moment of Termite’s birth. Mostly, everybody’s thinking about Lola, a lounge singer at the heart of several tantalizing mysteries here.
Whatever Lola wants, Lola gets, at least when it comes to men. Thus, in 1959 Winfield, West Virginia, her sister Nonie is raising the beautiful, reckless Lola’s children, Termite and 17-year-old sister Lark. Circling between the tough Nonie’s painful memories, Lark’s radiant, youthful optimism, and the rich inner life of Termite, Phillips constructs an intricate picture not only of Lola, but of family tragedy, grief, and love.
Cpl. Robert Leavitt is also thinking about Lola and his unborn child. In this most moving narrative, a tragedy (based on the No Gun Ri massacre) unfolds at the Korean War’s outset. Here, in her lyrical, luminous prose, Phillips manages a mystical connectedness between the wounded American soldier in 1950 (“Look inside, he tells his son, inside is where you really are”) and his disabled child in a West Virginia train tunnel in 1959.
This is a novel of often wrenching sorrow. But since it’s ultimately about survival, there is also hope and unexpected elation. And just about everybody—from damaged adults to coming-of-age teens—gets to have good sex.