Lark and Termite by Jayne Anne Phillips

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Lark and Termite by Jayne Anne Phillips

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Category: Literary Fiction
Rating: 4.5/5
Reviewer: Trish Simpson-Davis
Reviewed by Trish Simpson-Davis
Summary: Literary manna for American Studies readers with a rare new novel from accomplished Jayne Anne Phillips. This time she contrasts West Virginia with the Korean War in the '50s, but her earlier interest in the physical self, economic hardship, consciousness and power interweave a strong war message.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 272 Date: March 2010
Publisher: Vintage
ISBN: 978-0099288749

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The fiction of Professor Jayne Anne Phillips of Rutgers University has spawned a shelf of lit crit. This is only her fourth mainstream novel in a lifetime in the literary world; Motherkind was published as long ago as 2000. Academic articles discuss dirty realism, psychoanalytical self-consciousness and corporeal hegemony … phew … great expectations of a classic novel, then. In helping you to assess Lark and Termite's suitability as a title for your reading group, next flight or even for the bath, I'm going to follow the example of my writing teacher, who simply asks: Does it work?

The story is partly set in an incident from 1950, where Korean civilians fleeing the fighting were entrapped in a tunnel and subsequently gunned down by American troops. In grim fact, a baby was born and died in No Gun Ri tunnel (is that a ghastly pun?). A series of photographs of the railway bridge show the tunnel in ever-closer perspective through the novel, so we get a sense of being prodded towards that small space beneath the arches. This bridge, I think, is an overwhelming symbol of the connection between the segments of the story. Even the railway above leads Lark and Termite out to a new life. Does it work? Absolutely. Above all, it's a symbol of the degradation of a country drowning in war, and I can't help viewing the story as a post-9/11 challenge to American hawks.

In the novel, 21 year old GI Bobby Leavitt spends a compassionate second helping the remains of a refugee family, is shot, but manages to assist the family to the apparent safety of the tunnel. It's obvious that he won't survive, so we leave him for dead and turn to the next segment.

This is the story of Lola, who gives birth to his physically and intellectually disabled son in the days after Leavitt's injury. Three viewpoint characters take us through the events surrounding a flash flood in a small town in West Virginia in July, 1959. There are, then, different views of the same reality in these segments. Especially interesting is Termite's stilted, instinctual account, through which I gained some idea of his enhanced sensory abilities. Does it work? Although it's segmented into a chronology-defying format (let alone that old-fashioned notion of a beginning, middle and end), the writing flows like a strong-running river. I glimpsed a semblance of completeness from different places on the bank. Incomplete loose ends are left to mirror the messiness of real life.

These people come from the less salubrious end of American society: Winfield is a poor rural neighbourhood and as an adult, Lola swaps it for a seedy nightclub in downtown Lousiville, Kentucky. Her life provides plenty of gossip for her daughter, Lark, to assimilate in later years. Even so, Lola can rely on her sister, Nonie, to care for Lark and baby Termite when she decides to shoot herself (the final segment of the story).

Despite the overlaid differences, these small town characters are accepting and compassionate, from the ex-husband who buys Lola a house in Florida to neighbours who understand Termite and help out Lark and Nonie with his care. Lark makes sense of Lola's story through romanticized memories, allusions and faded artefacts. These enable her to work out where she and Termite belong in society. I don't mean to imply that this is an overly-romantic view of poor rural life; indeed not, for the writing is strong and unsentimental. However, the flood works particularly well, I think, to illustrate the innate goodness and decency of ordinary people in everyday surroundings.

Back in a Korean segment, the contrasting realization is that war distorts American goodness into evil. For Leavitt and the civilian refugees, the reality of war is far more brutal and horrific than any other existence. The writing is lyrical and intense as Leavitt's brain deals with mortal pain by moving into a heightened state of consciousness. His relationship with Lola is stripped of irrelevancies as he re-experiences its emotional depth and eternal love. At these moments he feels a somatic connection with Lola as she goes into labour, leaving the reader with the suggestion that the traumatic events somehow kickstarted the damage to Termite's brain.

As his consciousness level changes, Leavitt provides glimpses of the tunnel tragedy unfolding. At one terrible point, the young girl with him, now muddled with Lola in his mind, wets his lips with her shirt, but it tastes salty, because the stream running through the tunnel is polluted with the blood of murdered Koreans. His body state is explored in crisp detail as the reader is drip-fed the horror of war. Each time we leave him for 1959, the relief that he has died is followed by dread when we return to find him still alive. His final annihilation by 'friendly fire' is welcome relief. The Leavitt part of the story works as hauntingly as anything I've read from the trenches.

If you are still pondering its appeal to your reading group, I'd compare Lark and Termite with the superficially similar Atonement by Ian McEwan and leave the symbolism to the literary boffins.

The Bookbag would like to thank the publishers for sending this book.

Booklists.jpg Lark and Termite by Jayne Anne Phillips is in the Top Ten War Novels.

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