Lark & Termite
by Jayne Anne Phillips
Published by Knopf
272 pages, 2009
Season of Secrets
Reviewed by Diane Leach
Read this book slowly. You’ll want to speed up, because you’ll want to know what happens next, but you’ll be making a mistake. Set over three days in Korea, Winfield, West Virginia and Kentucky, Lark & Termite is comprised of slowly unfolding sentences that, for all their southern drawl, are honed down to essentials: the way a stray cat’s underbelly sounds dragging along dead grass, the rattle of freight trains, the muffled sounds of tunnels, the secrets families keep. Read too quickly, and you’ll miss something crucial.
The Lark and Termite of the title are sister and brother -- seventeen-year-old Lark, mature beyond her years, and nine-year-old Termite, who is impaired by hydrocephaly, limited vision, spina bifida and an unknown mental capacity. The year is 1959: such children are put into “homes.” But Lark and her Aunt Noreen, or Nonie, are fiercely attached to Termite, and care for him at home, where he is happy grasping a tiny perfume bottle, or watching a piece of blue plastic ripple in the wind.
The book creates a small southern community nearly unimaginable today. Besides Lark, Termite and Nonie, there is Charlie, who is both Nonie’s long-time lover and nominal owner of the diner where she works, Charlie’s grumpy mother, Gladdy, material owner of said diner, Elise, Nonie’s friend, and the Tucci family, a motherless bunch of boys who live next door to Noreen.
Lark and Termite’s dead mother, Lola, was a mysterious woman whom nobody will discuss. A great beauty and troublemaker, she ran off to Atlanta, where she sang torch songs and bedded Lark’s father (unknown for much of the book), then fell in love with Corporal Robert Leavitt, who was shipped out to Korea before his son was born.
Leavitt has a voice in the book: moving backward to 1950, we see him learning Korean, only to be abandoned and killed by his own forces in No Gun Ri, where a convoy of American soldiers and Korean refugees were trapped in a tunnel and gunned down. We see Leavitt die, follow him as his fading mind seeks Lola and their child. Later we watch Termite, who loves train yard tunnels, gaze uncomprehendingly upon an internal vision of bodies dying in a tunnel, one of them a man emanating white light.
It is testimony to Phillips’ talent that such moments -- occurrences outside daily “reality” -- are believable, acceptable parts of the narrative. Besides Termite and his father’s connection, there is Robert Stamble, the social worker newly assigned to Termite’s case. Social Services wants Termite attending a special school, seated in a conventional wheelchair. Lark and Nonie know he prefers his special rolling desk chair or the high-sided wagon Lark pulls him around town in. Stamble, an Albino, seems to understand this. He brings Lark a child-sized wheelchair, far more comfortable than the enormous, hulking contraption Social Services offered. He carries no officious paperwork. And he does not press Lark to send Termite to school, or worse, away to a home. He is strangely helpful yet spectral, ultimately inexplicable.
The story accretes in layers: Lola and Robert, Nonie and Lola, Nonie and Charlie, Lark and Solly Tucci, who have loved each other since childhood. Sandwiched in those layers are endless secrets: Lark’s parentage, Termite’s full name, Nonie’s early romances and two marriages.
Weather is another character in the book: the July heat is its own stifling presence, one Lark and Termite actively escape, drawing in the cellar, hanging out in Charlie’s air conditioned diner. Charlie adores the children; he has built a special seat at the counter for Termite, and prepares him ground-up foods that are easily swallowed.
Termite is as much a vibrant, sentient presence as any of the other characters. Incapable of linear thinking and hampered by his blurred vision, he nonetheless “thinks” cogently, recognizing his family and friends. Possessed of acute hearing, he is minutely aware of the natural world. When a storm of biblical proportions begins gathering, he is the first one aware of the rising floodwaters. He hears the rustle of grasses, the sounds between radio stations, the movements of the feral orange cat who follows him everywhere. Unable to generate his own speech, he is capable of echolalia, and when upset, “tells and tells,” a singsong, often wordless sort of speech Lark and Nonie expertly interpret.
The book gathers speed, each unfolding truth ratcheting the narrative as the storm gathers. When the rain hits, Nonie and Elise are driving sanctimonious Gladdy home; Solly is helping Lark carry boxes from the basement to the attic, along with food, water, and bedding. When Nonie is trapped with Elise in town, Lark and Termite watch Winfield flood, the waters rising through the house, down the streets, taking trees, dogs, rats. When Termite, a lover of rain, finally sleeps, Lark opens the long-sealed boxes, learning truth about her parentage -- and her brother’s.
To describe the plot is almost a disservice, for it minimizes the book’s great beauty. Lark and Termite is that increasingly (it seems to me, anyway) rare book, a plain old story in the best sense, a finely honed work by a writer at the top of her powers. | April 2009
Diane Leach lives in northern California with her husband and cat. When not reading or writing, she regularly burns herself in the kitchen.