Literary Criticism and Significance
Phillips has said that she sees her “work as a continuum.... One book leads into another.” With its West Virginia setting and its tracing of a family’s evolution across generations and time, Lark and Termite recalls Phillips’s earlier novels Machine Dreams and Shelter as well as her short story collections Fast Lanes and Black Tickets. The book also represents a return to more familiar geographic territory after MotherKing, her previous novel which was set mostly in Boston, Massachusetts.
While the sections in West Virginia are based on Phillips’s own background—she grew up in West Virginia and has talked about seeing a boy like Termite as a young girl—the inspiration for Leavitt’s story came from the 1999 Associated Press story that broke the massacre at No Gun Ri. Although the character of Leavitt is fictional, his situation is not. A large number of South Korean refugees were strafed by American warplanes and shot at by American soldiers. In the same way that that the motivations of the characters are often hard to discern, the moral senselessness of American actions in this massacre informs the themes of Lark and Termite.
Phillips does not seem to create characters so much as channel them. Her use of poetic language and close interior monologues gives readers a deep look at characters that would be impossible with a more conventional, distanced narrative style. This also leads to fiction that asks more questions than it answers. At the end of Lark and Termite, essential mysteries remain: Why could Lola not live a normal life? What is the nature of Termite’s mental condition? Why has Leavitt been caught under enemy fire? Even though these problems have not been solved, the reader has been given an arena in which to entertain them—and their understanding of life and people has been deepened.
Critics celebrate Lark and Termite for its evocative descriptions of war and family and its heartfelt examination of familial love. Maureen Corrigan of National Public Radio calls Lark and Termite “a war story” and praises the way Phillips presents “love that lingers between people, across oceans and generations.” Michiko Kakutani of The New York Times lauds Phillips’s artistic vision:
Repeated images and leitmotifs link these people’s stories together, lending the novel a haunting musical quality, even as they suggest the unconscious, almost magical bonds shared by people who are connected by blood or love or memory.
Although the messages and themes of Lark and Termire are more intuitive than they are explicit, it is clear that the novel has much to say about families and war. Because of its refracted narrative structure and poetic diction, the novel rewards repeated reading, and interpretations will grow more nuanced as critics spend more time with it.