Jonathan Cape 16.99 (272pp) £15.39 from the Independent Bookshop: 0870 079 8897

Lark & Termite, By Jayne Anne Phillips

A ragged family's woven lives - before the flood

In the early Eighties, Jayne Anne Phillips's debut, Machine Dreams, became one of the most acclaimed novels of the time. A fractured, elusive and inventive tale of family dysfunction set against the horrors of Vietnam, it more than capitalised on the potential shown in her earlier short stories – which Raymond Carver described as "unlike any in our literature". It could have been the beginning of a startling literary career; but – perhaps like one of her own characters – she has side-stepped the obvious route to success.

In the last quarter-century, Phillips has written just three novels. Her style, concerns and themes have not changed appreciably, though her literary standing has perhaps been hampered by such a slim output. While the writers with whom she was once compared – the so-called Dirty Realists of Carver, Richard Ford and Tobias Wolf – have become established voices of America, Phillips has been unfairly regarded as a talent unfulfilled. As a consequence, her first novel for nine years, Lark & Termite, is almost like an opportunity to start over.

Beginning in 1950 with Corporal Robert Leavitt's last hours in a war-scorched Korea, the story shifts to West Virginia some nine years later. Leavitt's son, Termite – born almost exactly at the time of his death and with a severe disability – is now being raised by his half-sister Lark and his aunt Noreen, while his mother is absent and never discussed in polite company.

This raggedly stitched-together family unit have survived much, as we see in the narratives of both Noreen – or Nonie – and Lark. Phillips captures these voices with clarity: the laconic, understatement of Nonie is counter-posed by Lark's darkly optimistic post-adolescent views. As a devastating flood wells in the town, the secrets both women carry come to the surface, exposing the truth behind Lark's parentage, the reason for her mother's continued absence and why Nonie has remained steadfastly unmarried, despite a decades-old relationship with the boss of the diner where she works.

Each revelation takes us deeper into their complex inner lives. Lark may be optimistic, but she is not naive, and knows the effect she has on men of all ages, and the effect they can have on her. She has let them touch her, she has seen their cold desperation and darker side of lust. And while Nonie might appear laconic and resigned, she remains a woman of desires and passions.

Thankfully, these hidden truths are unearthed organically; there is no wilful holding back of information, no writerly sleight-of-hand. Consequently. the narrative has an urgency that Phillips' previous books have perhaps lacked. As the flood builds, so Phillips ups the suspense.

Despite this, it is perhaps during the flood and its aftermath that Lark & Termite falters slightly. Its climactic ending is one that will either infuriate or delight. Either way, it seems somewhat unnecessary for such a powerful, emotionally astute novel to conclude with such a curveball.

This is a minor slight, however, on a narrative that is consistently inventive, evocative and uncompromising. Haunting is a word much overused, but Lark & Termite is exactly that: a novel whose elegant, lingering images are hard to shake from the memory. This is a glowing, powerful and immensely readable paean to the power of family – whatever its construction.

Arts and Entertainment
Call The Midwife: Miranda Hart as Chummy

tv Review: Miranda Hart and co deliver the festive goods

Arts and Entertainment
The cast of Downton Abbey in the 2014 Christmas special

tvReview: Older generation get hot under the collar this Christmas

Arts and Entertainment
Dapper Laughs found success through the video app Vine

comedy Erm...he seems to be back

Arts and Entertainment
Wolf (Nathan McMullen), Ian (Dan Starky), The Doctor (Peter Capaldi), Clara (Jenna Coleman), Santa Claus (Nick Frost) in the Doctor Who Christmas Special (BBC/Photographer: David Venni)

tvReview: No ho-ho-hos with Nick Frost's badass Santa

Arts and Entertainment
Bruce Forsyth and Tess Daly flanking 'Strictly' winners Flavia Cacace and Louis Smith

tv Gymnast Louis Smith triumphed in the Christmas special

PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Rhys says: 'I'm not playing it for laughs, but I have learnt that if you fall over on stage, people can enjoy that as much as an amazing guitar solo'
musicGruff Rhys on his rock odyssey, and the trouble with independence
Arts and Entertainment
Krysia and Daniel (Hand out press photograph provided by Sally Richardson)
How do today's composers answer the challenge of the classical giant?
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
News
Shenaz Treasurywala
film
News
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Jason Watkins as Christopher Jefferies
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Star Wars Director JJ Abrams: key character's names have been revealed
film
Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell Williams won two BBC Music Awards for Best Song and International Artist
music
Arts and Entertainment
Mark, Katie and Sanjay in The Apprentice boardroom
TV
Arts and Entertainment

Film The critics but sneer but these unfashionable festive films are our favourites

Arts and Entertainment
Frances O'Connor and James Nesbitt in 'The Missing'

TV We're so close to knowing what happened to Oliver Hughes, but a last-minute bluff crushes expectations

Arts and Entertainment
Joey Essex will be hitting the slopes for series two of The Jump

TV

Who is taking the plunge?
Arts and Entertainment
Katy Perry as an Ancient Egyptian princess in her latest music video for 'Dark Horse'

music
Arts and Entertainment
Dame Judi Dench, as M in Skyfall

film
Arts and Entertainment
Morrissey, 1988

TV
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    A Christmas without hope: Fears grow in Gaza that the conflict with Israel will soon reignite

    Christmas without hope

    Gaza fears grow that conflict with Israel will soon reignite
    After 150 years, you can finally visit the grisliest museum in the country

    The 'Black Museum'

    After 150 years, you can finally visit Britain's grisliest museum
    No ho-ho-hos with Nick Frost's badass Santa

    No ho-ho-hos with Nick Frost's badass Santa

    Doctor Who Christmas Special TV review
    Chilly Christmas: Swimmers take festive dip for charity

    Chilly Christmas

    Swimmers dive into freezing British waters for charity
    Veterans' hostel 'overwhelmed by kindness' for festive dinner

    Homeless Veterans appeal

    In 2010, Sgt Gary Jamieson stepped on an IED in Afghanistan and lost his legs and an arm. He reveals what, and who, helped him to make a remarkable recovery
    Isis in Iraq: Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment by militants

    'Jilan killed herself in the bathroom. She cut her wrists and hanged herself'

    Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment
    Ed Balls interview: 'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'

    Ed Balls interview

    'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'
    He's behind you, dude!

    US stars in UK panto

    From David Hasselhoff to Jerry Hall
    Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz: What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?

    Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz

    What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?
    Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

    Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

    Planet’s surface is inhospitable to humans but 30 miles above it is almost perfect
    Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history - clocks, rifles, frogmen’s uniforms and colonial helmets

    Clocks, rifles, swords, frogmen’s uniforms

    Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history
    Return to Gaza: Four months on, the wounds left by Israel's bombardment have not yet healed

    Four months after the bombardment, Gaza’s wounds are yet to heal

    Kim Sengupta is reunited with a man whose plight mirrors the suffering of the Palestinian people
    Gastric surgery: Is it really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

    Is gastric surgery really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

    Critics argue that it’s crazy to operate on healthy people just to stop them eating
    Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction Part 2 - now LIVE

    Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction

    Bid on original art, or trips of a lifetime to Africa or the 'Corrie' set, and help Homeless Veterans
    Pantomime rings the changes to welcome autistic theatre-goers

    Autism-friendly theatre

    Pantomime leads the pack in quest to welcome all