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...
(The entire section is 1573 words.)