Lark & Termite is Jayne Anne Phillips' first book in nine years. Oh, is it worth the wait.
It's a jewel of a book, small in scale but composed of myriad facets, shining from deep within.
Its time line entwines two compressed periods: seven days in 1959 in the lives of the title characters, a pair of young siblings living in Winfield, a tiny town on the Kanawha River in West Virginia — and seven days, the same dates, in 1950, as Termite's father struggles to stay alive in the first days of the Korean War.
Lark is almost 18, blooming into a beauty but wary of the male attention she draws. Instead, she's devoted to duty — toiling at secretarial school to gain skills she hopes will make her a good living and, above all, caring for Termite.
That's not easy. At age 9, Termite can't speak or walk. Severely disabled since birth, he lives inside his head, mimicking the sounds of speech without forming words, spending hours blowing on a strip of blue plastic that Lark fastens to his hand, just to watch it flutter. Lark carts him around town in a wooden wagon, rigged with a belt to help him sit upright on their tours of the railroad yards near the river, a place that draws them both.
Lark and Termite share a mother, but they know next to nothing about her and less about their fathers. They're being raised by their aunt, Nonie, who is devoted to them, working long hours in a restaurant owned by Charlie, her first love, and his bitter old bat of a mother, Gladdy.
Nonie has had two husbands, neither of them Charlie, and doesn't want any more. Supporting her niece and nephew and worrying about whether child welfare authorities might force her to institutionalize Termite — common practice in the 1950s — keep her occupied.
On the surface, the cobbled-together family seems ordinary enough. Phillips deftly draws a warmly intimate portrait of their domestic life, Lark baking a cake while Termite communes with a stray cat that's oddly interested in him.
But there are mysteries here. Among them is the connection between Lark and Termite's life in 1959 and what is happening in 1950 to Robert Leavitt, a young soldier caught up in the terrible events at No Gun Ri. Near that village, South Korean civilians fleeing the advancing North Korean troops were killed by U.S. soldiers. The number killed has been disputed; estimates range from eight to several hundred.
The structure of Lark & Termite is reminiscent of William Faulkner's The Sound and the Fury with its multiple points of view, Termite a reflection of mentally impaired Benjy Compson, events in the past keeping an inexorable grip on the present. Phillips, though, alternates her characters in short sections of the book, a complex technique that allows one character's story to ripple through another's in unexpected ways.
Just as Benjy's sister, Caddy, is the enigmatic center of Faulkner's novel, here the person who connects everyone else while remaining a mystery to all of them is Lola. She is Leavitt's wife, Nonie's younger sister, Lark and Termite's mother, a dangerous redhead with a smoky singing voice and a penchant for borrowing other women's men.
"Giving a person like Lola the looks she had was like giving a baby two fistfuls of dynamite," Nonie recalls while thinking about their childhood. Raised by a half-crazy preacher father and a withdrawn, silent mother, both girls blow town as soon as they're old enough (or a little before).
Nonie eventually comes back to Winfield, and Lola sends her babies there, first one, then the other. As Lark nears adulthood herself, she longs for anything that is a clue to her mother: "I don't think my mother ever owned anything. I think she got pulled apart. Too many people owned pieces of her . . . The whole town knows more about her than I will ever remember."
But as those seven days pass in parallel, gunshots grow closer to a tunnel under a train trestle in Korea and a river in flood rises under another trestle in West Virginia. Lark finds out more than she ever expected, and the strands of the story grow more strange and beautiful at every turn as Phillips taps into powerful magic with a tale that surprises to its last page.
Colette Bancroft can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8435.