Lark & Termite

Written by Jayne Anne Phillips


It’s July 1950, and as Corporal Robert Leavitt commands a platoon in the Korean countryside, his thoughts wander to his wife, Lola, and their unborn child, the link between them uncanny. “I am carrying high and round, tight as a drum full of water,” Phillips writes, “I know it’s a boy—he turns like a fish and he sees and hears for you, every sound, every thought I haven’t written.” Leavitt comes across evacuating refugees little before American pilots mistake them for the enemy and strafe them. Trying to help a young girl and her little brother, Leavitt is seriously wounded. The action shifts to another July, nine years later, in Winfield, West Virginia, where Lark, Lola’s older daughter, an adolescent, is taking care of her half-brother, nicknamed Termite, Leavitt’s son, a boy who can’t talk or walk. Both have been raised by their aunt Nonie, a no-nonsense woman who waits at a local diner. How Lola’s children end up with Nonie is only one of the harrowing twists of this novel, an unusual tale that moves back and forth between two summers, in vastly different landscapes, on days that start ordinarily and end cataclysmically in the historical tragedy at No Gun Ri and in a terrifying flood.

The fourth of Phillips’ novels, Lark and Termite is written from the point of view of the main characters, the voice reflecting Leavitt’s struggle, Nonie’s realism, Lark’s complete dedication, and Termite’s mysterious connection with the natural world and with his father. All the way through however, the prose is intimate, hypnotic, even erotic, with haunting, numinous episodes that unswervingly convey the author’s message about the universal significance of devotion and compassion. The world, Phillips asserts, is much more than what we see.