Lark & Termite by Jayne Anne Phillips

21/03/09, The Times

Lark & Termite, Jayne Anne Phillips’s first novel in nine years, is an intense tale of love, loss and the bonds of family that survive magically, almost miraculously, over time and space. It tells the story of two sisters, Lola and Noreen, and the secret of their apparent estrangement, but, most importantly, it tells the story of Lark and Termite, Lola’s children, who are brought up by their aunt Noreen in Winfield, West Virginia. On the surface, the book unfolds over 6 days, 26-31 July, 1959, in Winfield, when Lark is 17 and Termite, who is afflicted by a severe case of cerebral palsy from birth, is 9, with sections set exactly nine years ago, 26-28 July, 1950, in Korea, during the Korean War, in which Robert Leavitt, Lola’s husband (Termite’s father) is serving, but Phillips condenses the linked backstories of each of her characters in that seemingly small period and takes us back to show us how they have arrived at the point in the present in which she locates her novel.

What could have been a fairly conventional story of family secrets, of love that abides and redeems and love that destroys, with a fair bit of hokum thrown in about ghostly presences, transtemporal connections, visions and ‘more things on heaven and earth than are dreamt of in philosophy’, is transformed by Phillips into something extraordinary by the way she fractures time in the plot and, in what is conspicuously a ‘point of view’ novel, the way we get the same events refracted through different subjectivities, thus creating the effect of a fanned, intersecting design, not unlike the music of, say, John Adams or Steve Reich.

Termite, speechless and chair-bound but preternaturally attuned to sounds that are sub-audible, such as of grass growing, of cats skulking under porches, of a ‘thin pencil that whispers and never stops’, senses and comprehends the world in terms of sounds, and Phillips gives him not so much a point of view as a dense, textured point of hearing. It is worth seeking out the book for this alone, and for the luminous intensity with which Phillips invests the connection between Lark and Termite, a connection far below the surface of words, below even of thought: she has created nothing short of an intensely moving and empathetic communion of souls between the two siblings.

The authorial influence behind Lark & Termite seems to be Marilynne Robinson’s 1980 classic, Housekeeping. Reading the Termite sections of the novel, it is not difficult to understand nearly a decade of silence: Phillips has spent the time forging a new language, not one based on neologisms or nonce-words, such as in A Clockwork Orange or Riddley Walker, or on the opaque playfulness of Finnegans Wake, but one consisting of such a minute, incandescent attentiveness to Termite’s radically different mode of consciousness, of apprehending the world, that she slows down the language to allow space for a different paradigm of sensory experience.