Lark & Termite

Time Out Ratings :

<strong>Rating: </strong>3/5

Like her now-classic Machine Dreams and Black Tickets, Jayne Anne Phillips’s latest novel tackles the consequences of war, poverty and natural disaster. These themes, and Phillips’s imagistic language, dominate the novel, sometimes overshadowing its compelling characters. Lark and Termite are the book’s motherless children, a too-responsible girl on the cusp of maturity and her severely handicapped little brother. Given up by their now-dead jazz-chanteuse mother, Lola, the kids live with Nonie, their long-suffering but loving aunt. Chapters shift in time from wartorn Korea (where Termite’s father, Robert Leavitt, dies in combat) to early-’60s West Virginia, as Phillips, via alternating points of view, gives a roving cast of characters a chance to tell their stories.

If Lark & Termite’s fractured structure recalls Phillips’s short fiction, her plush syntax sometimes reads like poetry. The verbal intensity can be too rich, as each character watches the world through the same sense-enhancing prism. “Pale blue divinity sounds like a dress or a planet,” Lark says about a cake she’s decorating for Termite, who himself describes the treat as “a shadow of a taste in the warm room.”

When Phillips turns to sex and death, however, potentially clichd events become urgent and unique. Dying, Leavitt “closes his eyes to let the dark go black.” Lark describes a moment of sensual letting-go as a “horrible relief.” In an otherwise amorphous narrative, these moments are a jarring—yet welcome—return to reality.

Phillips reads Sun 18.

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By Jayne Anne Phillips. Knopf, $24.