'Lark and Termite' by Jayne Anne Phillips

Siblings' bond holds lives together in a hard place

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at its heart, Jayne Anne Phillips' new novel is about a girl, competent and wise beyond her years, taking care of her younger mysterious half-brother. They are the title characters whose world -- Winfield, W.Va. -- is a haven with a tragic periphery.

The stories that help explain their lives are like garish accessories they would never wear, kept in boxes at arm's length.

Lark and Termite are the children of Lola, a character who barely makes an appearance. She exists in interpretation. She was an "easy" woman, and at times, some thought her a bit of the professional at it.

   
"LARK AND TERMITE"

By Jayne Anne Phillips
Knopf ($24)

   

A singer, Lola met Robert Leavitt, her handsome soldier and Termite's father, in a nightclub. She proved to be the mother who didn't stick around.

But she helped create the world in these 254 pages, a story that opens in 1950 with Leavitt shipped out to Korea in the early days of the war. As his young life drains away in a tunnel where Korean villagers and American troops have thronged for refuge against friendly fire from U.S. guns, Lola has given birth to his son, a severely disabled child who doesn't cry or move his legs.

Lola had already abandoned Lark, the daughter she conceived with her sister Nonie's boyfriend, Charlie, and soon she abandons Termite.

Nonie ends up with both children and works in Charlie's restaurant to support them. She and Charlie rescue their own relationship and become the children's parents, but Lark is the boy's anchor.

She is aware that her mother may have died and doesn't know who her father is until the end.

No one knows what Termite is aware of, but in one short passage at the end of the book, his perceptions emerge. He "sees" his father carrying a little boy and an older girl to safety in a tunnel.

That Leavitt's outfit and a throng of fleeing Koreans sought refuge in a tunnel, with Leavitt carrying a little disabled boy at the fiery insistence of an older sister, makes this supernatural passage puzzling. It rears up from a story that had adhered so strongly to the tactile throughout.

Should we believe now that Termite is the key to understanding other mysteries, that he is limited only by the perceptions of so-called normal people?

The railroad tunnel in West Virginia where Lark and Termite seek refuge from a devastating flood and the tunnel in Korea are kindred images, as are the fiercely devoted sisters. Lola's fate echoes that of a Korean woman who has just borne too much pain. These are elegant ties elegantly created.

Phillips has written a fine novel, her first in nine years. The gem of it is the smaller story that cocoons inside the overarching themes of leave-taking and lost chances. There is no doubting that Lark will be there for Termite.

Her attentions to the boy and his interpretations of the world have a taste, sound and air all their own. It is inside this world where Phillips' voice is most acute and elegant.

Her characters Nonie, Elise, Charlie and Gladdy, Charlie's mother, are all finely honed, Nonie especially as the loving one who keeps things going, still resentful of her sister but strong and pragmatic.

Lark and Termite are transcendent. Termite can only repeat words he hears, but his range of expressions and sounds are a language to Lark. She does not think anything is wrong with him.

As a younger child, she had described him as like an angel, with his translucent skin and curls.

She pushes his wheelchair and pulls his wagon, taking him to the diner to sit in his special counter chair, to the river to hear the rush of water, to the tunnel to hear the trains.

Lark bakes him birthday cakes when it is and isn't his birthday and recognizes in his hyper-awareness and sound sensitivities better qualities, more grace, than others can see.

"I lean down close to him and whisper, in the powdery smell of his hair, 'Your birthday, Termite, every day.' "

"Every day, he says back to me, every day, every day."

She is his happy servant, and the images that resound like reality include the way she wraps a blue plastic dry-cleaning bag around his hand so he can move a strip that dangles from it with his breath.

Floods are used to create transitions in many novels; such a device rings true when the setting is West Virginia. Phillips' flood sets everyone's lives on a different course. You hope Nonie will be OK and that her fate will stay merged with Charlie's. Lark and Termite have to leave their nest, too. It's a sad story, but Lark makes you believe it will get better.


Diana Nelson Jones can be reached at djones@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1626.


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