I have Beth Kephart to thank for many things, the least of which is being a great source of books that I might not otherwise know about. So it was when I saw Lark & Termite on my library's New Books shelf, I immediately recognized it as one of Beth's recommendations, as her post from October 2008 makes so clear.
This is a novel that is so many things, on so many levels. It is a love story set upon the backdrop of war. It's the story of maternal love, in all its forms, and the story of the special bond between siblings. It's mystical and elegant, sad and sensual, intricate and simple. It is a novel that is hard to categorize for all of these reasons.
Let's start with the characters. In the first pages of the novel, we meet Corporal Robert ("Bobby") Levitt, a soldier gravely wounded in Korea in July 1950 and far from his Philadelphia hometown. (The City of Brotherly Love is somewhat of a bit player in this novel, but any book with a Philly setting in any sense earns points with me.) Bobby is newly married to Lola, a singer who he met while playing trumpet in a club and who is pregnant with his child, who will be known as Termite. A rather unfortunate name, but one bestowed upon the boy because he is just a "mite" of a thing.
And then there is Lark. Wise beyond her 17 years, Lark spends her days devotedly and selflessly caring for Termite, who is developmentally disabled, wheelchair-bound, hardly able to talk except to repeat the last few words or a short phrase of a sentence. The siblings live in West Virginia with Lola's sister, Nonie, after Lola abandoned them. The reasons for the abandonment - as well as the identity of her father - are a mystery to Lark.
Lark & Termite takes place over the course of several days in July - albeit exactly 9 years apart. Told from the points of view of various characters, the trajectories, coincidences, and intersections of all of their lives is the substance of the novel. Consider this passage, from Lark's point of view:
"Life feels big to me, but I'm not sure it's long. I rub cereal off the hard curved lips of the breakfast bowls, and life feels broad and flat, like a sand beach rolling into desert, miles and miles. Like pictures of Australia I've seen, with a sapphire sky pressing down and water at one edge. That edge is where things change all at once. You might see the edge coming, but you can't tell how close or how far away it is, how fast it might come up. I can feel it coming. Like a sound, like a wind, like a far off train." (pg. 37-38).
The seemingly simple things - like a piece of blue plastic from a dry-cleaning bag that Termite perseverates on - are central to Termite's world, a world which seems limited on the surface and to others but in fact, is richly layered. Among the hallmarks of Jayne Anne Phillips' writing is how she delves into Termite's mind, allowing the reader to tiptoe among his thoughts, to see the kaleidoscope of details that comprise his world. While blowing on the piece of blue plastic from the dry-cleaning bag,
As the mother of a child with Aspergers, and who seems to take frequent delight in the simplest things in life and who prompts wonder from us on a daily basis about his quirks and interests, I found passages like these absolutely intriguing and among the best in the book. I loved Lark's protectiveness of him coupled with her insight into his world.
"[he] sees through the blue and it goes away, he sees through the blue and it goes away again. He breathes, bowing just high. The blue moves, but not too much, the blue moves and stays blue and moves. He can see into the sky where there are no shapes. The shapes that move around him are big, colliding and joining and going apart. They're the warm feel of what he hears and smells next to him, of those who hold and move and touch and lift him, saying these curls get so tangled, wipe off his hands, Lark, there's Termite. He sings back to keep them away or draw them near. That's all he'll say, he won't tell and tell .... Pictures that touch him move and change, they lift and turn, stutter their edges and blur into one another. Their colors fall apart and are never still long enough for him to see, but the pictures inside him hold still." (pg. 57)
It might seem as if I am focusing on the interactions between Lark and Termite - and indeed, they are a central part of the story - but there are other aspects to this novel, too. The reveries of Bobby as he is attacked in Korea and the similarities of those who he is trapped with to those he's left behind; the symbolism of the color blue, and oceans, and trains; the mystical quality of Shambles and who he really is.
"Later, when Nonie gets home, I could ask her: what about that? How can you say he doesn't know what goes on? And she'll look at me and shake her head. Lark, she'll say,what about the other ninety-nine times out of a hundred, when he sounds off strictly according to his own rhyme and reason?
She doesn't understand. That's the point: he's got a rhyme and reason. We only see the surface, like when you look at a river and all you see is a reflection of the sky." (pg. 134)
"People who don't know Termite get nervous around him. They look away, but everyone who does know him wants to give him something. The fact is, once they know he's not the emergency he might appear to be, they find an excuse to be near him. He doesn't demand anything or communicate in the usual ways, but he somehow includes them in the way he pays attention to his stillness. It's how people feel when they look at water big enough to calm them, a pond or a lake or a river. Or the ocean, of course. The first time I put my ear to a conch shell, it was as though I could finally hear the sound Termite lives in." (pg. 136)
There are parts of Lark & Termite that bear a second, and sometimes a third reading. It's easy to feel confused in parts, to feel as if the action is happening in a blur. Normally, that would drive me crazy (particularly with the war scenes). In this case, however, it works beautifully. The blurry quality that Jayne Anne Phillips' writing brings to this novel is absolutely fitting, and a testament to her skill as a writer.
Lark & Termite was a finalist for the 2009 National Book Award. Here's an interview from The National Book Foundation's website with author Jayne Anne Phillips about the novel and on being nominated for the award.
In addition to Beth Kephart's blog post mentioned at the beginning of this review, here are two others:
Lingering Love and Loss in Lark & Termite (NPR book review)
In War and Floods, A Family's Leitmotif of Love, Memories and Secrets (NY Times Book Review)