Writing about this particular book was a challenge. There are myriad, untried ways to pick at a flaw; innovative praise defiant of cliché proves more difficult. Lark and Termite, by Jayne Anne Phillips, is, in a word, superb. The characters were ones I had never met before. With the narrative moving fluidly between locations in America and Korea, the uncertain map of these people’s lives brings the reader into contact with new perspectives, tribulations and joys. Phillips handles the demanding intricacies of her characters and the importance of their stories expertly. The narrative is startling corporeal even when it crosses the boundaries between the seen to unseen, the proven and the understood.
The novel opens in Korea alongside Corporal Robert Leavitt. Transferred from a post in Japan to Seoul, Leavitt finds himself tangled in the confusion of the Korean War. Due to its situation between WWII and Vietnam, the Korean War often gets lost in the shuffle of transformative, twentieth century events. It appears as a minor blip on the screen of history compared with the involvement of the world in the 40s and the revolutionary rage of the 60s. A blip if you weren’t there, excruciatingly real to the soldiers and refugees whose lives were destroyed by death or by survival. Merely witnessing the atrocities devastated just as certainly. Entering into the head of Leavitt, Phillips brings this screeching reality to the surface.
Ten years later, the petals of other characters’ stories unfold around Termite, Robert’s son. Termite was born unable to walk or speak and he participates in the world on an indeterminate level. His awareness is quantified differently by his observers. He is tranquil and perceptive, exhibiting a deep response to the sounds around him. Lark, his half sister, ascribes more to him than their aunt Nonnie, though both women care for him with the depths and heights of dedicated love.
Nonnie is the novel’s pillar of strength. For reasons initially unrevealed she is caring for both of the children of her inexplicably absent and incapable younger sister, Lola.
Lola is never seen head on. An image of her is constructed through the lenses of those shattered or made whole by her. Lola is depicted as a force. For Robert she is the constant for him to cling to on the battlefield. He calls up a gentle, pungent procession of memories of their love affair. Moments both carnal and tender. And in the context of the bodily and mental destruction he is facing, they are wrenching. Even in these scenes there is a hint that Lola’s entirety is not simple, but Robert’s resonance with her lends a profundity to her person that might not be grasped through another’s perception.
Every relationship in Philips’s novel possesses a multitude of gradations. No one is simply a lover, brother, mother or aunt. This awareness of overlap in human rapports constructs the reality in the narrative. And within this reality, Lark’s relationship to her brother is situated. Philips crafts an incredible connection by these two. They are linked through the blood of their mother but Lark’s affinity for her damaged brother exceeds sisterly bounds. Lark reads the emotions of Termite without effort. But ultimately her awareness of his conscience merely corroborates his interior, Philips allows Termite his own lens.
The story is measured and Philips navigates time and her broad array of voices with ease. I left one character with reluctance only to find myself caught up in the intricacies of the next. Stratums of understanding exist in this novel and its richness caused it to figure as much more than a blip on this reader’s list.