I was taken aback when I began to read Lark and Termite. Is this a war novel? It starts with Corporal Robert Leavitt, 24th Infantry Division, South Korea, July 26, 1950. But I didn’t want to read another war novel! There are hints of life back in the States, his wife and family. But he’s talking infantry and GHQ and ROK units and Occupation forces… this is not what I signed up for! 15 pages…23 pages…29… finally, on page 30 we switch gears to Winfield, West Virginia, 1956, and the story of Lark and Termite begins. Of course, connections are made eventually and the story swings back and forth between time periods and place. And I am most comfortable in the small town story.
I loved the chapters about Lark, the 17 year old beauty, and the tender relationship she has with her severely disabled and retarded brother, Termite, age 9. They live with their aunt Nonie, who works at a local restaurant.
Lark doesn’t think twice about caring for her brother. She is the one who best understands his needs and his methods of communication, and she realizes that he comprehends much more than others give him credit for: “…he’s got a rhyme and reason. We only see the surface, like when you look at a river all you see is a reflection of the sky.”
Phillips was courageous in the sections where it’s Termite’s POV. Of course, I have no way of knowing if her portrayal is authentic, but it certainly rings true. He catches snatches of conversation; hears and feels things that others can’t:
Sudden morning air floats low to the ground amid the small houses like fragrant evaporating mist, a cool bath of dew and shadow and damp honeysuckle scent. He gasps and hears the sharp grass under them move its fibrous roots…There’s a shape in the air where the car was. He feels the shape hold still before it begins to end. Slowly the air comes back. The grass begins small sounds.These sections had me contemplating for a long time how people who can’t communicate in “normal” ways experience the world.
I forgive Phillips the Korean War chapters – they are integral to the larger story. And I forgive the bit of magical realism that is part of the story too. I just can’t quite give her a perfect score because of the grossly overwritten character of Gladdy, Nonie’s nemesis. She’s bitter, petty and vindictive – and I found her an unbelievable character who didn’t add much to the novel. After Phillips drew the other characters so exquisitely, this one was a stumbling block for me.
Still – highly recommended for some superb writing. (4/5)