A Selection of Barnes & Noble Recommends
We admire Lark and Termite for the subtlety of its prose and its nuanced rendering of the relationship between its two main characters.
Jayne Anne Phillips's first fiction in nine years immerses us in the lives of Termite, Lark, and Nonie, three characters as memorable as their names. Set in rural West Virginia and war-torn Korea during the 1950ss, Lark and Termite follows an inquisitive 17-year-old girl; her younger, developmentally challenged brother; and their aunt, the hardworking woman who raised them, through a single, eventful week in 1959. Through captivating flashbacks, memories, and vignettes, we learn the deepest secrets about them and the parents absent from their lives. A major work by the author of Black Tickets and Machine Dreams.
On the surface, nothing about the West Virginia family in Lark and Termite seems especially noteworthy, except perhaps the consistency of their misfortune, but the author reveals their tangled secrets in such a profound and intimate way that these ordinary, wounded people become both tragic and magnificent.
The Washington Post
Jayne Anne Phillips renders what is realistically impossible with such authority that the reader never questions its truth. This is the alchemy of great fiction: the fantastic dream that's created in Lark and Termite is one the reader enters without ever looking back.
The New York Times Book Review
Jayne Anne Phillips's intricate, deeply felt new novel reverberates with echoes of Faulkner, Woolf, Kerouac, McCullers and Michael Herr's war reporting, and yet it fuses all these wildly disparate influences into something incandescent and utterly original…Ms. Phillips knows her characters so intimately and tackles their stories with such ferocity that the novel does not devolve into soap opera but instead ascends into the higher, more rarified altitudes of fable.
The New York Times
From Phillips (Motherkind; Shelter) comes a long-awaited and wonderful coming-of-age tale of grief and survival. The story straddles a parallel six-day period in July, one in 1959-during which 17-year-old Lark; her brother, Termite, who can't talk; and their aunt and caretaker, Nonie, are struggling to balance hope and despair in smalltown West Virginia-and nine years earlier, when Termite's father, Robert Leavitt, serves a tour in Korea. Lark, living with her aunt without knowing who her father is or why her mother gave her up, was nine years old when baby Termite landed on their doorstep. Nonie works long hours at a local restaurant to support the hodgepodge family, leaving Lark to take over mothering duties, but as Lark finishes secretarial school and realizes how limited the options are for her and Termite, forces of nature and odd individuals shed light on mysteries of the past and lend a hand in steering the next course of action. Through Robert and Nonie's stories and by exposing the innermost thoughts of each character, Phillips creates a wrenching portrait of devotion while keeping the suspense at a palpitating level. (Jan.)Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.
In her latest novel, Phillips (Machine Dreams; Motherkind) works with favorite themes in a tale of secrets, family bonds, and the power of love related through multiple perspectives and set during the 1950s. Central to the narrative are a remarkable pair of siblings orphaned by the Korean War. Born the day his soldier father perished in the notorious No Gun Ri massacre, the young boy called Termite possesses unusual perception unnoticed by most observers because of his severe disabilities. His prospects in tiny Winfield, WV, seem dismal, but teenage sister Lark, who adores her little brother, won't give up. She schemes to gain a happy mutual future even while she is pursued romantically by a much older man, threatened with Termite's removal by the state, and endangered by approaching floodwaters. These suspenseful plot elements (including more than a hint of the supernatural) are supported by sensitively rendered characters and finely drawn Appalachian and Asian locales that create a poignant story with broad reader appeal. Recommended for most fiction collections.
Starr E. Smith
From the Publisher
“Powerful and emotionally piercing. . . . A novel that conjures with poetic ferocity the… unconscious, almost magical bonds shared by people who are connected by blood or love or memory.” —Michiko Kakutani, The New York Times
“Anyone, male or female, who seriously cares about reading novels will find Lark and Termite to be intricately and beautifully composed.” —The New York Review of Books
“Phillips . . . [knows] how to bypass the reader’s brain and inject her words directly into the bloodstream.” —Los Angeles Times
“There are books you recommend to everybody, and then there are books you share cautiously, even protectively. Jayne Anne Phillips’s Lark and Termite is that second kind, a mysterious, affecting novel you’ll want to talk about only with others who have fallen under its spell.” —The Washington Post Book World
“This novel is cut like a diamond, with such sharp authenticity and bursts of light.” —Alice Munro
“Lark and Termite is a category of story unto itself: mythical without being gooey; wry and terribly moving; as ornately contrived as Dickens, as poetic as Morrison, yet unselfconscious in tone and peopled with vivid, salt-of-the-earth characters who mostly accept the limits on life’s possibilities with a shrug and another cup of coffee.” —Maureen Corrigan, “Fresh Air”
“A stylistic tour de force. . . . Pure, rapt poetry.” —The Wall Street Journal
“Fever-dreamy.” —Entertainment Weekly
“A jewel of a book.” —St. Petersburg Times
“Phillips returns to working-class lives in what may be her most tender, most compassionate book to date. . . . Extraordinary.” —The Plain Dealer
“Jayne Anne Phillips renders what is realistically impossible with such authority that the reader never questions its truth. . . . The fantastic dream that’s created in Lark and Termite is one the reader enters without ever looking back.” —The New York Times Book Review
“Lark and Termite is extraordinary and it is luminous. . . . It is the best novel I've read this year.” —Junot Díaz
“Electrifying. . . . Gorgeous, stunning.” —Newsday
“A narrative that is consistently inventive, evocative and uncompromising. . . . Haunting is a word much overused but Lark And Termite is exactly that: a novel whose elegant, lingering images are hard to shake from memory.” —The Independent (London)
“Remarkable . . . swings from spare to sumptuous. . . . An intricate, affecting portrait of a darker corner of the American ‘50s.”—USA Today
“Extraordinary and brilliant. . . . With its echoes of William Faulkner and its almost mystical exploration of love in all its forms, but particularly between siblings, the novel is a powerful and tender portrayal of a family that in the end proves literally unsinkable.” —The Sunday Times (London)
“Evocative. . . . Lark and Termite offers substantial rewards for readers who value passages of gorgeous, intelligent writing.” —The Boston Globe
“What a beautiful, beautiful novel this is–so rich and intricate in its drama, so elegantly written, so tender, so convincing, so penetrating, so incredibly moving.” —Tim O’Brien
“A richly textured novel with a wondrous story at its heart about the many permutations of love and the complexities it engenders.” —Sunday Herald (London)
“Acute and elegant.” —Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
“Moving and suspenseful. . . . Phillips weaves the characters’ stories masterfully, touching on betrayal and forgiveness, war’s horror, natural disaster, secrets of the past, the love and dedication of an extended family of friends, mystery and death.” —The Miami Herald
“Luminous and haunting and singular. . . . Because [Lark and Termite] deals with issues over which people have been arguing for centuries—family and war—the novel’s raw immediacy is really quite spectacular. . . . Phillips serves it all up with a prose that sparkles and startles.” —Chicago Tribune
“Phillips reinvigorates and transforms the Faulknerian infrastructure. . . . Exquisitely explored.” —Bookforum
“Sharply lyrical. . . . Once you open [Lark and Termite’s] hypnotic pages you will find yourself pulled like metal to a magnet.” —Dallas Morning News
“Lark And Termite is about Big Themes: love, death, war, time, consciousness, perception, especially sound, and language itself. . . . Its belief in redemption and hope are not the least of Lark And Termite's blessings.” —The Observer (London)
“A tale with a Southern Gothic flair, startlingly alive language and the intensity of four narrators. . . . It’s easy to fall into the world Phillips has created and inside the heartache of the well-rendered characters.” —The Oregonian
“Riveting and moving. . . . Lark’s pragmatism, clear-eyed love and determination to hold on to her brother are strikingly fresh and heroic.” —The Seattle Times
“Strange and beautiful at every turn as Phillips taps into powerful magic with a tale that surprises to its last page.” —St. Petersburg Times
“Exquisite. . . . The story’s rich symbols and parallels are carried along by the sounds, images and rhythms of Phillips’ wordcraft. This is Phillips writing at her best.”—St. Louis Post-Dispatch
“Jayne Anne Phillips . . . is at the height of her powers in Lark and Termite. . . . This is a major novel from one of America’s finest writers.”—Robert Olen Butler
“Sinuous and evocative.” —Salon
“A celebration of language. . . . There’s joy here, and the bold confidence of a mature talent at full stretch.” —New York Observer
“For all its apparent focus on style and technique, Lark and Termite is a book of ideas, a thoughtful contemplation on the nature of human goodness. . . . Remarkable.” —The Irish Times
“A tour de force of history, imagination and invention. It is resonant and profound, a masterpiece worth waiting for.” —More
“You finish Lark and Termite wanting to turn back to the first page and start over, making sure not to miss a single note.” —San Francisco Chronicle
Read an Excerpt
Winfield, West Virginia
July 26, 1959
I move his chair into the yard under the tree and then Nonie carries him out. The tree is getting all full of seeds and the pods hang down. Soon enough the seeds will fly through the air and Nonie will have hay fever and want all the windows shut to keep the white puffs out. Termite will want to be outside in the chair all the time then, and he’ll go on and on at me if I try to keep him indoors so I can do the ironing or clean up the dishes. Sun or rain, he wants to be out, early mornings especially. “OK, you’re out,” Nonie will say, and he starts his sounds, quiet and satisfied, before she even puts him down. She has on her white uniform to go to work at Charlie’s and she holds Termite out from her a ways, not to get her stockings run with his long toenails or her skirt stained with his fingers because he always has jam on them after breakfast.
“There’s Termite.” Nonie puts him in the chair with his legs under him like he always sits. Anybody else’s legs would go to sleep, all day like that. “You keep an eye on him, Lark,” Nonie tells me, “and give him some lemonade when it gets warmer. You can put the radio in the kitchen window. That way he can hear it from out here too.” Nonie straightens Termite. “Get him one of those cleaner-bag ribbons from inside. I got to go, Charlie will have my ass.”
A car horn blares in the alley. Termite blares too then, trying to sound like the horn. “Elise is here,” Nonie says. “Don’t forget to wash the dishes, and wipe off his hands.” She’s already walking off across the grass, but Termite is outside so he doesn’t mind her going. Elise waves at me from inside her Ford. She’s a little shape in the shine of glare on the window, then the gravel crunches and they’re moving off fast, like they’re going somewhere important. “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. It’s seven in the morning and here and there a little bit of air moves, in pieces, like a tease, like things are getting full so slow no one notices. On the kitchen wall we have one of those glass vials with blue water in it, and the water rises if it’s going to storm. The water is all the way to the top and it’s like a test now to wait and see if the thing works, or if it’s so cheap it’s already broken. “Termite,” I tell him, “I’ll fix the radio. Don’t worry.” He’s got to have something to listen to.
He moves his fingers the way he does, with his hands up and all his fingers pointing, then curving, each in a separate motion, fast or careful. He never looks at his fingers but I always think he hears or knows something through them, like he does it for some reason.
Charlie says he’s just spastic, that’s a spastic motion; Nonie says he’s fidgety, with whatever he has that he can’t put to anything. His fingers never stop moving unless we give him something to hold, then he holds on so tight we have to pry whatever it is away from him. Nonie says that’s just cussedness. I think when he holds something his fingers rest. He doesn’t always want to keep hearing things.
My nightgown is so thin I shouldn’t be standing out here, though it’s not like it matters. Houses on both sides of the alley have seen about everything of one another from their secondfloor windows. No one drives back here but the people who live here, who park their cars in the gravel driveways that run off the alley. We don’t have a car, but the others do, and the Tuccis have three—two that run and one that doesn’t. It’s early summer and the alley has a berm of plush grass straight up the center. All us kids—Joey and Solly and Zeke and me—walked the grass barefoot in summer, back and forth to one another’s houses. I pulled Termite in the wagon and the wheels fit perfectly in the narrow tire tracks of the alley. Nick Tucci still calls his boys thugs, proud they’re quick and tough. He credits Nonie with being the only mother his kids really remember, back when we were small.
Today is Sunday. Nick Tucci will run his push mower along the berm of the alley, to keep the weeds down. He does it after dusk, when he gets home from weekend overtime at the factory and he’s had supper and beer, and the grass smells like one sharp green thread sliced open. I bring Termite out. He loves the sound of that mower and he listens for it, once all the way down, once back. He makes a low murmur like r’s strung together, and he has to listen hard over the sounds of other things, electric fans in windows, radio sounds, and he sits still and I give him my sandals to hold. He looks to the side like he does, his hands fit into my shoes. Hiseyes 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.
Sundays seem as long as a year. Sundays I don’t walk up Kanawha Hill to Main Street to Barker Secretarial. I’m nearly through second semester, Typing and Basic Skills, but I’m First of Class and Miss Barker lets me sit in on Steno with the second-year girls. Miss Barker is not young. She’s a never-married lady who lives in her dead father’s house and took over the school for him when he died of a heart attack about ten years ago. The school is up above the Five & Ten, on the second floor of the long building with the long red sign that says in gold letters murphy’s five and ten cent store. It’s a really old sign, Nonie says, it was there when she and my mother were growing up, but the store was both floors then. Now Barker Secretarial has filled the big upstairs room with lines of Formica-topped desks, each with a pullout shelf where we keep our typing books (Look to the right, not to the keyboard, look to the right—). We have to be on time because the drills are timed and we turn on our machines all at once; there’s a ratchety click and a rumble, like the whole room surges, then it hums. The typewriters hum one note: it’s a note Termite could do, but what would he do with the sound of us typing. We all work at one speed for practice drills. We’re like a chorus and the clacking of the keys sounds measured, all together. Then at personal best we go for speed and all the rates are different. The machines explode with noise, running over themselves. Up near the big windows, for half the room, there’s a lowered fake ceiling with long fluorescent lights. The tops of the windows disappear in that ceiling and I hate it and I sit in the back. Barker Secretarial stopped with the ceiling halfway when they realized they didn’t have the money for air-conditioning, and they brought in big fans that roll on wheels like the wheels on Termite’s chair. Miss Barker gets those fans going and we all have to wear scarves to keep our hair from flying around. With the noise and the motion I can think I’m high up, moving fast above the town and the trees and the river and the bridges, and as long as I’m typing I won’t crash.
I tell Termite, “It’s not going to rain yet. He’ll still mow the alley. There’s not going to be stars though. It’s going to be hot and white, and the white sky will go gray. Then really late we might have that big storm they talk about.”
Big storm they talk about, Termite says back to me, in sounds like my words.
“That’s right,” I tell him. “But you’ll have to watch from the window. Don’t think you’re going to sit out here in the rain with lightning flashing all around you.”
He doesn’t say anything to that. He might be thinking how great it would be, wind and rain, real hard rain, not like the summer rain we let him sit out in sometimes. He likes motion. He likes things on his skin. He’s alive all over that way. Nonie says I put thoughts in his head, he might not be thinking anything. Maybe he doesn’t have to think, I tell her. Just don’t you be thinking a lot of things about him that aren’t true, she’ll say.
But no one can tell what’s true about him.
Termite was pretty when he was a baby. People would coo over him when we walked him in the big carriage. His forehead was real broad and he had blond curls and those blue eyes that move more than normal, like he’s watching something we don’t see. He was so small for his age that Nonie called him a mite, then Termite, because even then he moved his fingers, feeling the air. I think he’s in himself like a termite’s in a wall.
I remember when Termite came. Nonie is his guardian and his aunt, but I’m his sister. In a way he’s more mine than anyone else’s. He’ll be mine for longer, is what Nonie says. Nonie isn’t old but she always says to me about when she’ll be gone. She looks so strong, like a block or a rectangle, strong in her shoulders and her back and her wide hips, even in her legs and their blue veins that she covers up with her stockings. Your mother didn’t bring him, is what Nonie told me, someone brought him for her. Not his father. Nonie says Termite’s father was only married to my mother for a year. He was a baby, Nonie says, twenty-one when my mother was nearly thirty, and those bastards left him over there in Korea. No one even got his body back and they had to have the service around a flag that was folded up. Nonie says it was wrong and it will never be right. But I don’t know how Termite got here because Nonie sent me away that week to church camp. I was nine and had my birthday at camp, and when I came home Termite was here. He was nearly a year old but he couldn’t sit up by himself, and Nonie had him a baby bed and clothes and a high chair with cushions and straps, and she had papers that were signed. She never got a birth certificate though, so we count the day he came his birthday, but I make him a birthday whenever it suits me.
“Today could be a birthday,” I tell him. “One with a blue cake, yellow inside, and a lemon taste. You like that kind, with whipped cream in the center, to celebrate the storm coming, and Nick Tucci will get some with his ice tea tonight, and I’ll help you put the candles in. You come inside with me while I mix it and you can hold the radio. You can turn the dials around, OK?”
Dials around OK. I can almost answer for him. But I don’t. And he doesn’t, because he doesn’t want to come inside. I can feel him holding still; he wants to sit here. He puts his hand up to his face, to his forehead, as though he’s holding one of the strips of blue plastic Nonie calls ribbons: that’s what he wants. “There’s no wind, Termite, no air at all,” I tell him. He blows with his lips, short sighs.
So I move his chair back from the alley a bit and I go inside and get the ribbon, a strip of a blue plastic dry-cleaner bag about four inches wide and two feet long. It’s too small to get tangled and anyway we watch him; I take it out to him and wrap it around his hand twice and he holds it with his fingers curled, up to his forehead. “I’ll get dressed and clean up the kitchen,” I tell him, “but when I make the cake you’re going to have to come inside, OK?”
He casts his eyes sideways at me. That means he agrees, but he’s thinking about the blue, that strip of space he can move.
“You ring the bell if you want anything,” I say.
The bell on his chair was my idea; it’s really a bell for a hotel desk, flat, and he can press the knob with his wrist. That bell was mounted on a piece of metal with holes, maybe so no one would steal it once upon a time, or so it wouldn’t get misplaced. A lot of years ago, I sewed it to the arm of Termite’s chair with thick linen cord. His bell has a high, nice sound, not a bad sound. He presses it twice if he has to go to the bathroom, or a lot if something is wrong, or sometimes just once, now and then in the quiet, like a thought.
“Termite,” I tell him, “I’m going back in.”
Back in, back in, back in. I hear him as I walk away, and now he’ll be silent as a breather, quiet as long as I let him be.
I stand at the kitchen sink where I can see him, put the stopper in the sink, run the water as hot as it can get. The smell of the heat comes up at my face. The dishes sink into suds, and I watch Termite. His chair is turned a little to the side, and I can see him blowing on the ribbon, blowing and blowing it, not too fast. The little bit of air that stirs in the yard catches the length of that scrap and moves it. Termite likes the blue of the plastic and he likes to see through it. He blows it out from his face and he watches it move, and it barely touches him, and he blows it away. He’ll do that for thirty minutes, for an hour, till you take it away from him. In my dreams he does it for days, for years, like he’s keeping time, like he’s a clock or a watch. I draw him that way, fast, with pencil in my notebook. Head up like he holds himself then, wrist raised, moving blue with his breath.
People who see him from their second-story windows see a boy in a chair across the alley. They know his name and who he is. They know Noreen and how she’s worked at Charlie Fitzgibbon’s all these years, running the restaurant with Charlie while Gladdy Fitzgibbon owns it all and parcels out the money. How Nonie is raising kids alone that aren’t hers because Charlie has never told his mother to shove it, never walked off and made himself some other work and gone ahead and married a twice-divorced woman with a daughter and another kid who can’t walk and doesn’t talk.
Nonie is like my mother. When she introduces me, she says,
“This is my daughter, Lark.”
Nonie would be raising us anyway, whether Charlie ever did the right thing or not. And I don’t know if she even wants him to, anymore. It’s just Nonie should own part of that restaurant, hard as she works. Charlie does the cooking and runs the kitchen, and Nonie does everything else, always has, ever since she came back here when she left the second husband. She came back and there was Charlie right where she’d left him, living with his mother and going to Mass, and they fell right back into their old ways, and Gladdy fell into hers. Except the Fitzgibbons had just about nothing after the Depression. When Nonie came back, they’d barely held on to their house and the business. They would have lost the restaurant if Nonie hadn’t saved it for them,