Lark and Termite, the latest novel by American writer Jayne Anne Phillips, tells the story of two siblings and the mysteries surrounding the absence of their parents. Lark, a girl on the verge of adulthood, devotes her life to nurturing and looking after her younger brother Termite, whose stunted growth and inability to speak have the Social Services constantly threatening to take him away.
Nicknamed “Mite” for his small size as a baby, and then later “Termite” for his insect-like fingers that constantly feel the air, the nine-year-old boy has a keen sense of perception that allows him to communicate through sounds and touch. He senses “the warm feel of what he hears and smells next to him, of those who hold and move and touch and lift him.” With a dreamlike manner, Termite seems to observe the world with a poetic acuteness despite his disabilities.
Phillips divides her narrative into four different parts, employing multiple perspectives of different characters to create overlap and to enrich the plot. Through an account of Corporal Robert Leavitt, Termite’s father, and his time stationed in South Korea during the start of the Korean War, Phillips is able to conjure the love that binds the young soldier to his wife, Lola, the absent mother of Lark and Termite. Simultaneously, Phillips interweaves Leavitt’s slow death inside a tunnel with Lola’s painful birth of her son, Termite. The other chapters focusing on Lark, Termite, and their Aunt Nonie are told from the present, a decade later, in the span of just a few days. Through a recurrent order of speakers, Phillip’s embellishes each characters personality and draws the reader in.
Each sentence of the novel is filled with beautiful poetic imagery, as Phillips instills so much emotion into even the smallest, most seemingly insignificant scenes. Her vivid descriptions evoke each of the senses, as she once says Termite “can’t see the moon but he feels its wash of lighter air falling over them, safe in the bald black of the dark.” Written with such fluidity and eloquence, Phillips’ novel encompasses an almost musical quality to it.
The two children live with their Aunt Nonie in the small town of Winfield, West Virginia, during the 1950s, where Nonie works at a family-run diner and Lark attends a secretarial school each night. As Lark begins to realize how limited the options are for her and Termite, odd forces of nature and the help of a few individuals steer the two siblings in a new direction when an immense flood causes them to vacate their home. Lark’s selfless disposition creates a captivating novel reminding us all of the unbreakable strength of love among a family.