Wednesday, November 11, 2009

LARK & TERMITE by Jayne Anne Phillips

I had to read the first ten pages of this book three times, but after that it grew on me, to the point that the characters became people I could hardly let go of. The book takes place over four days in 1959 in Winfield, WV, and gives the perspective of three characters. A fourth character, Corporal Robert Leavitt, is in Korea during the same four days in 1950. Back in WV, though, we have half-siblings Termite, a disabled nine-year-old, and Lark, a beautiful teenage girl whose top priority is Termite's care. They live with their aunt Nonie, who has raised both her sister Lola's children since they were toddlers. Lola was married to Leavitt, and Termite is his son. It becomes obvious to the reader who Lark's father is, but she doesn't find out until the end. I'm not sure why his identity is hidden from her or why her mother's fate is a secret. Lark's narration is the only one in first person, and her voice is certainly the heart of the novel. A peripheral character is the mysterious albino Robert Stamble, the new rep from Social Services, who seems to connect with Termite and doesn't seem bent on removing him to a group home. (Hint: His name is significant.) The pivotal event is a flood, during which Lark makes some discoveries about her family and realizes that their lives are all going to change. Perhaps the flood is a metaphor for washing away the past, but tunnels seem to be a bigger symbol. Leavitt and a crowd of refugees crowd together in a tunnel, seeking cover from American fire. There's also a tunnel in the train yard where Lark frequently takes Termite, because he enjoys the noise and vibration. The train represents escape for Lark, with light at the end of the tunnel, I suppose.

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