Jayne Anne Phillips

"Lark & Termite"

(Reviewed by Poornima Apte JAN 23, 2009)

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Last year, Jayne Anne Phillips, the author of the touching Lark & Termite, wrote an essay about her native state, West Virginia, for the superb compilation State by State: A Panoramic Portrait of America. “In West Virginia, you are your people, your home place,” she wrote, “It's day-to-day, the land, the town, the garden, the field, the mine, the family, business, home.” This day-to-day basic plod is superbly captured in the portraits Phillips paints of the central characters in her latest novel—Noreen, Charlie, Lark, and Termite—all of whom live in 1950s West Virginia.

Noreen works at a small-town diner owned by Charlie after his nag of a mother, Gladdy, retired from the business many years ago. Noreen and Charlie have had a long-term relationship and, as the story opens, there are some untold secrets brewing around their respective pasts. The protagonists in the title, Lark & Termite, are Noreen's 17-year-old niece and nine-year-old nephew. They are both born to Noreen's sister, Lola, a woman who chose to move away from West Virginia many years prior. Lola's colorful life is a source of annoyance and some pain for Noreen—and exactly whose Lark's father is, remains a source of mystery for a good portion of the book.

What we do know shortly after the book opens, is that Termite is Lola's child fathered by a very young soldier, Corporal Robert Leavitt. Lola and Leavitt plan on marrying after his anticipated return from an assignment in Korea. Unfortunately, the young soldier dies in Korea. Phillips narrates the story from multiple points of view: that of Leavitt told from the war trenches in Korea, and that of Noreen, Lark & Termite. Phillips describes Leavitt's last hours in Korea in wonderfully poetic (and vivid) language. These pages set in Korea are complemented by the stories set in West Virginia.

Termite is born with some birth defects due to which he can't walk or talk even as a nine-year-old. Termite, whose actual name is Robert Onslow Leavitt, is named so because he burrows into himself building a world all his own. Lark, his 17-year-old half-sister, has quit school but takes typing classes to give her some chance at a job in the future. Most of her time is spent in caring for Termite; Phillips details their delicate relationship beautifully.

Early on in the book, rain clouds threaten a storm and the reader senses something dark brewing ever so slowly. Eventually, a flood breaks out and the rising water levels serve as an effective metaphor for the rising tensions in the characters' lives, as the story's secrets are revealed.

Lark and Termite is full of poetic imagery—absolutely beautiful writing that transports the reader. Phillips knows how to use the smallest scenes to encapsulate entire volumes of emotions or feelings. In one touching scene, as the flood threatens to envelop everything, Lark must figure out what she will save and take with her to the attic. Part of the treasures she saves turns out to be the skirts and blouses, nylons and underwear, the one good cardigan and pair of heels “Miss Barker says an executive secretary might need.” This small act speaks volumes about the lack of opportunity for Lark and children like her in small town West Virginia. Yet, in saving these things, Lark is also secretly hopeful for a better life. “Now that I'm older, I've got a clear space around me I didn't have before,” she says. “I wonder if that's like a future, or a place where a future will be.”

In another beautifully-realized scene, Phillips captures the sexual tension between Lark and her teen neighbor, Solly Tucci. The Tucci boys have grown up with Lark & Termite and Solly enjoys a special place in Lark's heart. Phillips does an absolutely brilliant job at describing the chemistry between the two.

Despite its beauty, there are a couple of elements that seem out of place in the novel—a social worker called Stamble mysteriously appears and disappears, and for all the buildup the “revelations” seem to roll around too abruptly. Nevertheless, Lark & Termite is a wonderful, soulful read—one that truly captures the dynamics between the lead characters.

Going back to her essay for State by State, Phillips wrote: “Born and raised in West Virginia, you can never truly leave. Those who stay, and those who don't, stand in the middle of the story, wherever they go. They share the feel and smell and mind's eye image of a narrow road in summer, a dirt road or a paved one, bordered by woods and fragrant weeds, overhung with trees, twisting deeper.” In other words, West Virginia, Phillips implies, becomes an inextricable part of every native. As Lark & Termite shows, this is indeed true. The state is a living, breathing entity in the book defining the characters' lives in ways that nothing else can. It is West Virginia after all that slowly stifles Lark & Termite's lives even as the small town they live in, grants them routine, everyday mercies.

“The wash of the old stories is gone. We're all going somewhere else now, somewhere different from where we've been,” Noreen says towards the end of the wonderfully-written Lark & Termite. Here, Noreen seems to imply a metaphorical (if not literal) escape for all involved. By the end, the reader comes to feel for the characters so much that one really hopes that such release actually comes to fruition.

  • Amazon readers rating: from 77 reviews

Read a chapter excerpt from Lark & Termite at Random House



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About the Author:

Jayne Anne PhillipsJayne Anne Phillips was born in Buckhannon, West Virginia. Her first book of stories, Black Tickets, published in 1979 when she was 26, won the prestigious Sue Kaufman Prize for First Fiction, awarded by the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters.

She is the recipient of a Guggenheim Fellowship, two National Endowment for the Arts Fellowships, and a Bunting Fellowship. She has been awarded an Academy Award in Literature (1997) by the American Academy of Arts and Letters. Her work has been translated into twelve languages, and has appeared in Granta, Harper’s, DoubleTake, and The Norton Anthology of Contemporary Fiction.

Lark & Termite was a finalist for the 2009 National Book Award.

She has taught at Harvard University, Williams College, and Boston University, and is currently Professor of English and Director of the MFA Program at Rutgers-Newark, the State University of New Jersey.

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