Novelist and short story writer Jayne Anne Phillips took American literature by storm in 1979 with Black Tickets, a collection of character sketches and short stories exploring the loneliness and alienation of ordinary men and women derailed in their quest for the American Dream. She currently heads Rutgers University’s creative writing program.
The Story: In 1950, Corporal Robert Leavitt, serving in Korea, is wounded by friendly fire and takes shelter in a tunnel near the village of No Gun Ri. As he drifts in and out of consciousness, he dreams of his pregnant wife, Lola, and their unborn child and relives their courtship and brief time together. Nine years later, Leavitt’s son Termite, who can neither walk nor talk because of hydrocephalus, lives with his devoted older sister Lark, Lola’s daughter from a previous relationship, and his Aunt Nonie in a small town in West Virginia. As the stories intertwine, Leavitt struggles to survive while Lark resolves to do anything to keep Social Services from taking Termite away from her.
Knopf. 254 pages. $24. ISBN: 0375401954
New York Times
"Jayne Anne Phillips’s intricate, deeply felt new novel reverberates with echoes of Faulkner, Woolf, Kerouac, McCullers and Michael Herr’s war reporting, and yet it fuses all these wildly disparate influences into something incandescent and utterly original. … In the hands of another writer such subject matter might easily turn into maudlin melodrama, but Ms. Phillips knows her characters so intimately and tackles their stories with such ferocity that the novel does not devolve into soap opera but instead ascends into the higher, more rarified altitudes of fable." Michiko Kakutani
San Francisco Chronicle
"Lark and Termite is a true work of art, literature that makes other contemporary novels seem flat by contrast, and that seems destined to last, on bookshelves and in readers’ hearts. … A deeply satisfying story comes together slowly, in confessions and omissions, as the mysteries of the past are filled in and the promise of the future unfolds." Malena Watrous
"Secrets, and their rate of revelation, are among an author’s most treasured tools, and while Lark and Termite contains enough mysteries to satisfy discriminating readers (Who is Lark’s father? Is Nonie a murderer? Will Bobby survive a massacre in Korea?), Jayne Anne Phillips unspools them leisurely, allowing for full immersion in the evocative prose that marks her work. … Not the perfect choice for devotees of fast-paced thrillers, Lark and Termite offers substantial rewards for readers who value passages of gorgeous, intelligent writing with intricate literary architecture." Perrin Ireland
"Such is the Faulkner-esque setup for Jayne Anne Phillips’ much-awaited and poignant novel Lark & Termite, a tale with a Southern Gothic flair, startlingly alive language and the intensity of four narrators, each of whom must depend on personal endurance and fierce loyalties to rise above a knot of family secrets and misfortunes when the past finally comes knocking on the door." Debra Gwartney
Wall Street Journal
"It is an almost mystical interweaving of two very different places and times, and an original examination of the strange durability of family ties. … Ms. Phillips makes the occasional stumble into melodrama, but such lapses are offset by her ability to make psychological sense of the world she has created and by the ease with which she captures feelings, sounds and sights in a few well-chosen words." Brooke Allen
"Lark & Termite, [Phillips’s] first novel in nine years, has such burnished precision that it should bring renewed attention to a writer long in danger of being bound by the shackles of early promise and praise. … The middle section slows noticeably and teeters close to becoming mired in excess artifice." John Marshall
"Most of this novel is riveting and moving, but the author falters at the end where she awkwardly announces what she intends for one persistent and unclear motif to mean. … In this novel about sibling love set in the 1950s, Lark’s pragmatism, clear-eyed love and determination to hold on to her brother are strikingly fresh and heroic." Wingate Packard
Compared to William Faulkner, Virginia Woolf, and Toni Morrison, Jayne Anne Phillips has produced an eloquent, heartrending, and surprisingly suspenseful novel in Lark and Termite, her first in nine years. Critics paid tribute to her poetic, evocative prose—"language [that] cut[s] so close to the human heart that the differences between us are excised, and only what’s truest remains" (San Francisco Chronicle)—and her unforgettable, intimately drawn characters. Repeated pictures and leitmotifs connect the characters across time and space, while Phillips’s remarkable descriptions of Termite’s mute observations and insights allow readers to see the world through his eyes. The overlapping plotlines and narrative shifts demand readers’ patience and concentration, but "assembling the novel is its own reward" (San Francisco Chronicle).
POTENTIAL SPOILER ALERT!
The Reading Guide below is supplied by the book's publisher, and plot points may be revealed. We recommend that read the book before reading the guide.
1. Have you read any of Jayne Anne Phillips's other books? If so, in what ways is Lark and Termite similar to her earlier work, and how is it different?
2. Reread the quotations in the epigraph. Now that you've read the novel, what does each one mean to you?
3. On page 5, Leavitt thinks, "The war makes ghosts of them all." In what ways does this prove true? Which ghosts are literal, and which metaphorical?
4. Who is the strongest person in the novel? The weakest?
5. Mothers, and substitute mothers, play a substantial role in the novel. What do you think Jayne Anne Phillips is trying to say about motherhood?
6. Compare and contrast the sibling relationships in the novel: Lark and Termite, Nonie and Lola, and the nameless Korean pair.
7. Discuss the sense of sound as it relates to each of the main characters. In what ways does sound function differently for Termite than for Nonie or Lark? What about Leavitt and Lola? What does the sense of sound say about the importance of language?
8. Two different tunnels are the settings for major developments in the novel. What do they signify?
9. On page 24, Lola says of Lark, "I gave her a bird's name. Maybe she'll grow up safe and fly away."And on page 34 Lark discusses Termite’s nickname: "I think he's in himself like a termite's in a wall." What other names in the novel carry metaphorical weight?
10. Why does Charlie take care of Lola? What about Onslow?
11. "Termite can only tell the truth," Lark says on page 85. Who else tells the truth? Who lies? What are the ramifications?
12. What role does Solly play? What about his father, Nick?
13. Throughout the novel, we revisit events from different perspectives. How do the multiple takes change your understanding of what's happening?
14. On page 144, Lark says, "It's almost as though Stamble and Termite are related versions of something, but Stamble walks around in the world and Termite doesn't." Who is Robert Stamble? Why does Lark see him?
15. Where do you think Termite's new wheelchair really came from?
16. Discuss the flood. How is each character's life affected?
17. Reread and discuss the final Termite passages, on pages 249-250. What is revealed there?
18. Does the novel have a happy ending?
The Sound and the Fury by William Faulkner; Charming Billy by Alice McDermott; The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter by Carson McCullers; In Country by Bobbie Ann Mason; Plainsong by Kent Haruf; The Bridge at No Gun Ri: A Hidden Nightmare from the Korean War by Charles J. Hanley, Sang-Hun Choe, and Martha Mendoza.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Jayne Anne Phillips is the author of five acclaimed works of fiction. She is currently professor of English and director of the MFA Program at Rutgers-Newark. She divides her time among Boston, New York, and Glen Ridge, New Jersey.