Jayne Anne Phillips’ Lark and Termite lingers at the edges of the mind long after the back cover closes. One finishes the book convinced that Lark is someone known – the younger sister of a friend, a child one babysat, a cousin perhaps? Surely, we have seen her before, in another time and place, pulling Termite along in his wagon, watching him purse his lips to blow his “ribbons.” Thanks to Phillips’ evocative writing and acute sense of place, Lark and Termite feels familiar, known. As with all things close to us, this familiarity works both to the advantage and disadvantage of the book.
Two storylines twine to form the fabric of Lark and Termite. The story that opens the book is that of Corporal Robert Leavitt, the deceased father of Termite. Leavitt’s story explores the circumstances of his death — in a tunnel in Korea, the victim of “friendly” fire — and those of his life and love of Lola, the mother of both Lark and Termite. The chapters from Leavitt’s point of view are beautifully written, haunting, and uncomfortable.
It is this discomfort in these chapters that unfortunately detracts from the readability of the book. Like finding out an unwelcome secret about a friend, reading Leavitt’s story injects a distracting foreignness to Lark and Termite. This sense of something not quite fitting irritates. I truly wanted to like these passages. From a literary standpoint, they are some of the best in the book; Leavitt’s story is essential to the book, and brings in some important parallels to that of his son Termite; however, every time I came to one of Leavitt’s chapters, I found myself wanting to skip ahead.
I can only attribute this difficulty to the uneasy feeling that Leavitt’s story interrupts the familiarity of the story of Lark and Termite, rather like a breaking news feature inserted into a favorite television show – we acknowledge the importance of the news, but the comfort-seeking part of us just wants to return to the safety of our sitcom.
However, the above is less an indictment of the author than it is of the reader. I was simply so much at home in the story of the adolescent Lark and her disabled half-brother Termite, that anything else was viewed as an intrusion. Lark and Termite have been raised by their maternal aunt Nonie (Noreen), their mother Lola’s absence forming the secret at the heart of the novel. This part of the story unfolds in chapters alternately told from the points of view of Lark, Nonie, and, intriguingly, the mute Termite. Phillips’ use of Termite’s very interior narration to reveal some of the most salient points of the book is fascinating. Images of the past and present reveal themselves in Termite’s thoughts like fragments of a message gradually appearing from a solution of invisible ink.
In Lark’s first chapter, we see hints that Termite has his own way of reaching out to the world. “‘Termite,’ I say to him, and he says it back to me. He always gets the notes right, without saying the words. His sounds are like a one-toned song, and the day is still and flat.” Termite also has his own means of allowing the world to reach him. “He never looks at his fingers but I always think he hears or knows something through them, like he does it for some reason…I think when he holds something his fingers rest. He doesn’t always want to keep hearing things.”
Early on, we see that Lark and Termite have a strange symbiosis. Each enhances the other. Lark brings Termite outside to listen to the sounds of the mower in the summer grass. “…I give him my sandals to hold. He looks to the side like he does, his hands fit into my shoes. His eyes stay still, and he hears. If I stand behind his chair I can feel the blade of the mower too; I feel it roll and turn way down low in me, making a whirl and a cutting.” Attuned to her brother, Lark perceives the world in colors beyond the spectrum of a 17-year-old girl. Termite fits only within the world of his older sister.
Phillips’ subtle use of unconventional sentence structure – the strategically placed run-on, Termite’s fragmentary thoughts – drives the underlying realization that this is no mundane small-town coming-of-age story. Something incomprehensible and indefinably magical lies at the heart of the story of Lark, Termite, and their absent mother. The magic exists in spaces of crystalline light and uncomfortable shadow. Throughout the bulk of the novel, Lark’s paternity is unknown, creating an uneasy tension within her relationships with friends and neighbors. Lola’s story, as seen largely through the eyes of her big sister Nonie and the startling insights of Termite, is also fraught with disturbing darkness.
Ultimately, the redemptive light that laces through the stories of Lark, Termite, Lola, Leavitt, and Nonie dispels much of the unease. While the ending is less satisfying than one could desire, Lark and Termite will haunt the reader lovingly, lingering long after the turn of the final page.