Wednesday, March 31, 2010
Lark and Termite
I just finished reading Lark and Termite by Jayne Anne Phillips, and I am struggling for a way into this review. My mind floods with adjectives that are book-review cliches: words like "lush" and "lyrical." Let me see if I can find a way in, for both reader and reviewer. Lark and Termite was a National Book Award finalist, and seems to have been a popular book club choice. The writing is stupendously beautiful, and gives the impression of being effortless. The structure of the novel is interesting: two parallel story lines, both narrated by multiple narrators in a stream-of-consciousness style. The narrative structure and the style of the novel are unconventional, but the characters and the voice are compelling, gripping, and utterly convincing. The dreamy, interior, impressionistic narrative carries the reader along like a river, and rivers are important in this novel.
The novel begins in 1950 with a July day in South Korea, where Corporal Robert Leavitt is trying to stay alive. Meanwhile, "Termite" is a "tucked seed" inside Lola, who has already given up her daughter, Lark. Lark is being raised in West Virginia by Nonie, Lola's sister.
Flash forward to July of 1959, Winfield, West Virginia; Lark is now seventeen, and Termite is nine. The novel shifts back and forth this way, between South Korea in 1950, and West Virginia in 1959. The narrative focuses on just four days: July 16, July 27, July 28, and July 31. From time to time I would wonder how the two narratives were going to come together: what was the thread (or maybe river) that bound the stories? What was going to happen to Leavitt, what would happen to Lark and Termite, what ever did happen to Lola, who was Lark's father?
Most, but not all, of these questions are answered by the end of the novel. In the end, the reader still has more questions than answers, so if you enjoy this book, you probably have the ability to tolerate ambiguity. The structure and narrative style reminded me of William Faulkner (one of my favorite writers), especially As I Lay Dying and The Sound and the Fury. Termite is a little like Benjy, one of the narrators of The Sound and the Fury, as he is autistic. Faulkner took his title for The Sound and the Fury from Shakespeare's Macbeth ("it is a tale told by an idiot, full of a sound and a fury, and signifying nothing"). Benjy is the "idiot": a mentally disabled boy who sees more clearly than anyone.
Lark and Termite is the kind of novel that stays with the reader for days and days; I think I will be unraveling the questions of this book in weeks to come. In the end it is a book about blood and love; a love that persists and is stronger than death or time. It is a story of how we are connected, of what happens when a woman lets a man get inside her, and the insoluble, terrible, wonderful bonds created by sex and love.
I would recommend this book to anyone who loves beautifully written literary fiction. If you like the style of Virgina Woolf, William Faulkner, or Toni Morrison, I think you will love this book.