Thursday, December 22, 2011

Lark and Termite by Jayne Anne Phillips

I've now read three of the National Book Award finalists for 2009* (it was just a coincidence, I haven't been actively seeking them out) and this one is my favorite.

There are two parallel stories taking place nine years apart.  The first follows Corporal Robert Leavitt as he falls victim to the No Gun Ri massacre during the Korean War. (If you are as ignorant of the Korean war as I am and have never heard of No Gun Ri--read this article from Time or check the No Gun Ri archives out of the University of Albany to get up to speed.)

"Massacre in Korea" by Pablo Picasso
The second story follows Lark and Termite.  Termite is Leavitt's son who was born the same day he was killed.  Lark is termite's half-sister who cares for him since he is severely disabled.   Of course, the small town folk are duly horrified that Lark and her Aunt Nonie have not put him in an "appropriate" institution. This is the 1950s, there are places for people "like that."  Enter a social worker who may or may not be an angel.  A cat that watches Termite no matter what he does.  And a tunnel with a train overhead that bears eerie resemblances to a certain tunnel in Korea. 

Pretty soon it becomes evident that author has tied together an interesting family mystery that bridges time and place (did you pick up on the whole bridge symbolism going on here?).  The language is beautiful, the plot is intriguing and I love that we spend a chapter in each character's head--even Termite's.

I haven't read any other Jayne Anne Phillips books, but her style reminds me a bit of Shirley Hazzard (along with the whole waiting years and years between publications--which is good, because you know she's been really been crafting them).

*I also read In Other Rooms, Other Wonders by Daniyal Mueenuddin, my review is here.  I read and didn't review Let the Great World Spin by Colum McCann which was the winner that year. (I hadn't yet developed the gumption to review books I didn't like and now it's been nearly a year and so my thoughts on the book are kind of fuzzy.)


  1. I read Shirley Hazzard's The Great Fire and thought it was wonderful, so I may give this one a try.

    Hope your holidays are fun and the New Year brings good things :)

  2. The language is beautiful, much the way I remember Hazzard's writing to be. The story is quirky, though, not like any other book I've read.

    Thanks for the holiday wishes--I hope you have a wonderful 2012, too!