Few things raise my hackles faster than a magical disabled character. (Well, there’s that mystical bond between twins, but that might just be a bad “Sweet Valley High” backlash from the 1980s.)
Jayne Anne Phillips has not one but two such characters in her new novel Lark and Termite, both cared for by brave and selfless older sisters. So when I say that the book has as much poetry as a graduate seminar on John Donne, believe me, this is despite heavy initial resistance on my part.
The novel is split between two weekends in July nine years apart. In 1950, Cpl. Robert Leavitt struggles in the chaos at the beginning of the Korean War. One of only three members of his original group left, Robert keeps getting promoted by dint of staying alive.
“Taejon had fallen. Eighty thousand Republic of Korea soldiers had simply taken off their uniforms and disappeared, dressed in white, and joined the southward flow of refugees. Numerous American kids would have done the same if white clothes had offered any protection. Instead they fled while they could walk, leaving M1s and Browning automatics too heavy to carry.”
As Robert finds himself trapped in the No Gun Ri massacre, he desperately tries to hang on to memories of his pregnant wife, who’s in labor back in the US.
Nine years later, that son, Termite, and his wife’s older daughter are trying to escape numerous disasters, including Social Services and rising flood waters.
Termite was born severely disabled. He can neither walk nor talk. But his teenage stepsister, Lark, is devoted to him. Both children have been raised by their aunt, Nonie, who’s created an extended family for them made up of her lover Charlie, her neighbor and his sons, and her best friend. ‘
While Nonie worries and works at Charlie’s diner – a greasy spoon she saved from going under when she returned to Winfield, W.Va., – Lark bakes tricolored cakes with divinity frosting to celebrate Termite’s biweekly birthdays, runs him bubble baths, and takes him in his wagon to hear the trains leaving the railroad yard.
“I’m so used to being with Termite, he feels like alone to me,” she quietly relates. As a working definition of familial love, I’ll take it.
The children’s mother, Lola, a nightclub singer, is gone. What happened to her and the question of Lark’s parentage are the two central mysteries of the novel.
Phillips (“Machine Dreams”) pulls out all the stops in her first novel after 2000’s lackluster “MotherKind,” tossing in echoes of William Faulkner, a double-handful of magic realism, and a little jazz.
As the action jumps back and forth over the decade, the characters take turns telling the family history of loss and devotion.
“The Social Services people marched right into my living room, their hearts all righteous,” Nonie says of the exploratory surgery they mandated for Termite when he was a baby. “The doctors in Cleveland said no promises. That part I believed.”
Even Termite, so locked inside himself that Nonie and Lark aren’t sure what he can see, gets his turn as narrator.
“He can smell the soap and the rain. The rain comes closer and the wind is in the morning glory vines, swaying them like a skirt. Water pounds and clatters into the bathtub and pours from the kitchen spigot and the night smell settles warm against the house, close against it like one animal against the other.”
Phillips uses repetition to power her imagery. Railroad bridges, boys who sense things before others see them, a musician’s relationship with sound, and pencil drawings all recur until their symbolism becomes clear.
“Meaning didn’t matter; the real content of the words was in the sound itself,” Robert thinks about his Korean language lessons.
Of Termite’s ability to imitate people even though he can’t speak, Lark says, “Things just sound more like music in his version. Sounds instead of words.”
Such is the spell of the book that, while reading, I never once wondered at Lark’s selflessness. Even having cared for a relative myself (with far less saintliness on my part), it still took a few days for the questions to surface.
Didn’t the girl ever want to visit somewhere besides the river or the railroad yard? Dream about going to a movie or a fair with a friend her own age? Ever suffer an iota of impatience or teenage rebellion?
But when a novel can take “a piece of a dry-cleaner bag a yard long and a few inches wide,” and turn it into a movable piece of the sky, who wants to argue practical realities?
Yvonne Zipp regularly reviews fiction for the Monitor.