Jayne Anne Phillips’s Lark and Termite concerns a set of interrelated characters in West Virginia and Korea in the 1950s. Phillips shifts between two locations: a tunnel beneath a railway bridge at the start of the Korean War in 1950, where twenty-one-year-old Corporal Robert Leavitt is trapped with a mob of refugees being fired upon by confused American troops, and Winfield, West Virginia, 1959, where an unconventional family that includes Leavitt’s autistic son rides out a torrential flood.

Lark and Termite features an epigraph from William Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury. The novel recalls Faulkner’s both in its reliance on a mentally impaired character and in its use of multiple points of view. Phillips moves between the perspectives of Leavitt; Leavitt’s autistic son, Termite; Termite’s half-sister, Lark; and Lark and Termite’s aunt, Nonie.

Robert Leavitt has arrived in Korea by way of Japan, where he played trumpet in an army band before being chosen to join a group of American servicemen in an intensive Korean language program. A month after the surprise invasion of South Korea by North Korea, Leavitt is guiding a large mass of refugees from an evacuated village when they are fired upon by American airplanes, who are under the assumption that refugees have been infiltrated by North Korean soldiers. In the chaos of the firefight, Leavitt helps a Korean girl who is traveling with a blind boy, probably her brother, and an older woman. Leavitt flees with the refugees into a tunnel—but not before he is mortally wounded by gunfire in his legs and back.

As Leavitt marches with the refugees and after he becomes trapped in the tunnel, his mind reaches back to his life in America—specifically his youth in Philadelphia and his time on base in Fort Knox, Kentucky. While at Fort Knox, Leavitt visits nearby Louisville, where he plays trumpet in a jazz band at a club and brothel run by Bill Onslow. Leavitt falls in love with the jazz band’s lead singer, a thirty-year-old woman from West Virginia named Lola. Three weeks before Leavitt ships out to Asia, Lola tells him she is pregnant with his child, and they marry. As Leavitt fades in and out of consciousness, he hears Lola speaking to him. Leavitt knows their baby is due any day now, and he believes he will somehow know when Lola gives birth.

Interspersed with Leavitt’s story is the story of the title characters, Lark and Termite, and their life in Winfield, West Virginia, exactly nine years after Leavitt’s death in Korea. Termite is Leavitt’s son; he is a mentally impaired boy who does not communicate or walk but has a preternatural ability to mimic the words of those around him. His older sister, Lark, is Lola’s daughter from an earlier relationship. Lark and Termite live with their aunt, Nonie, who is Lola’s sister. Lark is Termite’s principal caregiver while Nonie is away at work, and the siblings share a special connection. Others disagree...

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Lark and Termite Extended Summary

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 1)

Known for her poetic glimpses into complex family relationships in such previous novels as Motherkind (2000), Jayne Anne Phillips works the same familial ground in Lark and Termite. She uses a variety of techniques to untangle the complex story of Lark, a young woman in small-town West Virginia in the late 1950’s who is struggling to understand her family’s past and its ramifications for her future. Told from the multiple perspectives of the main characters in the novel, the story refuses a strict linearity. Instead, readers learn information piecemeal, as different aspects of the family saga are revealed by different voices with distinct memories. Furthermore, Phillips hints at the possibilities of intersections between past and present, often made possible in the novel by a mystical interplay between different times and places.

The novel contains two discrete story lines, nine years apart in time, and the events in each help inform the unfolding of a larger plot that combines the two. The first story is told in multiple sections from the third-person limited perspective of Corporal Robert Leavitt, a young man who finds himself in South Korea at the onset of the Korean War. Given that most of the Americans with Leavitt have not been anticipating a conflict of this magnitude, the bombing and fighting creates mass confusion, hampering the Americans’ ability to differentiate between their allies, the South Koreans, and their enemies, the North Korean aggressors. As a result, some American soldiers fire on a group of retreating South Koreans that includes Leavitt.

Leavitt heroically tries to get his group to safety inside a tunnel underneath a bridge overpass. Shot just as he enters the tunnel, Leavitt spends much of his narrative in a hallucinogenic retreat into memory and fantasy, where he confuses his present in the tunnel with a fantasy of being at home in the United States with his wife. Time balloons and shortens during Leavitt’s sections of the novel, as he moves in and out of consciousness. Cared for tangentially by a young Korean woman who is also responsible for a mentally retarded child and an older woman, Leavitt seems to communicate to them beyond his physical capacity for language.

Part of Phillips’s purpose in these sections is to depict the senseless slaughter of hundreds of innocent Koreans in this tunnel incident, which actually occurred during the Korean War. (She also includes recent photos of the tunnel, bridge, and underpass taken by photographer Robert Nilsen). Hinted at within the hallucinations, however, are intimate connections between Leavitt’s present in Korea and a concurrent time with his wife back in the United States. He seems to exist in both places, knowing things about his wife and the imminent birth of his son that he could not realistically know.

Also tying into this sense of unreality are the uncanny abilities of the mentally retarded Korean boy whom Leavitt saves and who senses an attack by airplanes before it occurs. Though lacking the connections typically available to him, the boy, like Leavitt’s son Termite, seems to have prophetic abilities. Since the Korean boy’s qualities and physical characteristics are mirrored in Termite in the other sections of the novel, Phillips seems to suggest that the young Korean boy’s spirit is transferred somehow into Termite. Certainly, the two have similar attributes, including unusual, opaque eyes and an inability to walk or talk. Most important, Termite seems to know about things that occurred in the past and seems to “remember” the tunnel in Korea: He seems to connect an otherwise normal tunnel in West Virginia with the atrocities that occurred in Korea. Here, Phillips seems to portray the past and the present as capable of conjoining in ways one cannot fathom.

Termite’s is one of the most interesting...

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Lark and Termite Bibliography

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 1)

Book World 39 (January 25, 2009): 1

Booklist 105, no. 4 (October 15, 2008): 5.

Kirkus Reviews 76, no. 20 (October 15, 2008): 1090.

Library Journal 133, no. 20 (December 1, 2008): 118-119.

The New York Review of Books 56, no. 7 (April 30, 2009): 45-47.

The New York Times, January 6, 2009, p. 1.

The New York Times Book Review, January 18, 2009, p. 17.

The New Yorker 84, no. 47 (February 2, 2009): 67.

Publishers Weekly 255, no. 43 (October 27, 2008): 30-31.

The Times Literary Supplement, March 20, 2009, p. 21.

The Wall Street Journal, January 10, 2009, p. W8.

The Women’s Review of Books 26, no. 3 (May/June, 2009): 20-21.