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.

PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Martin Freeman as Lester Nygaard in the TV adaptation of 'Fargo'

TV
Arts and Entertainment
A scene from Shakespeare in Love at the Noel Coward Theatre
theatreReview: Shakespeare in Love has moments of sheer stage poetry mixed with effervescent fun
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Dwayne 'The Rock' Johnson stars in Hercules

film
Arts and Entertainment
Standing the test of time: Michael J Fox and Christopher Lloyd in 'Back to the Future'

film
Arts and Entertainment
<p><strong>2008</strong></p>
<p>Troubled actor Robert Downey Jr cements his comeback from drug problems by bagging the lead role in Iron Man. Two further films follow</p>

film
Arts and Entertainment

theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Tycoons' text: Warren Buffett and Bill Gates both cite John Brookes' 'Business Adventures' as their favourite book

books
Arts and Entertainment
Panic! In The Disco's Brendon Urie performs on stage

music
Arts and Entertainment

film
Arts and Entertainment
Keira Knightley and Benedict Cumberbatch star in the Alan Turing biopic The Imitation Game

film
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Radio 4's Today programme host Evan Davis has been announced as the new face of Newsnight

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell Williams performing on the Main Stage at the Wireless Festival in Finsbury Park, north London

music
Arts and Entertainment
Carrie Mathison returns to the field in the fourth season of Showtime's Homeland

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Crowds soak up the atmosphere at Latitude Festival

music
Arts and Entertainment
Meyne Wyatt and Caren Pistorus arrive for the AACTA Aawrds in Sydney, Australia

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Rick Astley's original music video for 'Never Gonna Give You Up' has been removed from YouTube

music
Arts and Entertainment
Quentin Blake's 'Artists on the beach'

Artists unveils new exhibition inspired by Hastings beach

art
Arts and Entertainment
MusicFans were left disappointed after technical issues
Arts and Entertainment
'Girl with a Pearl Earring' by Johannes Vermeer, c. 1665
artWhat is it about the period that so enthrals novelists?
Arts and Entertainment
Into the woods: The Merry Wives of Windsor at Petersfield
theatreOpen-air productions are the cue for better box-office receipts, new audiences, more interesting artistic challenges – and a picnic
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
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.

    Backhanders, bribery and abuses of power have soared in China as economy surges

    Bribery and abuses of power soar in China

    The bribery is fuelled by the surge in China's economy but the rules of corruption are subtle and unspoken, finds Evan Osnos, as he learns the dark arts from a master
    Commonwealth Games 2014: Highland terriers stole the show at the opening ceremony

    Highland terriers steal the show at opening ceremony

    Gillian Orr explores why a dog loved by film stars and presidents is finally having its day
    German art world rocked as artists use renowned fat sculpture to distil schnapps

    Brewing the fat from artwork angers widow of sculptor

    Part of Joseph Beuys' 1982 sculpture 'Fettecke' used to distil schnapps
    BBC's The Secret History of Our Streets reveals a fascinating window into Britain's past

    BBC takes viewers back down memory lane

    The Secret History of Our Streets, which returns with three films looking at Scottish streets, is the inverse of Benefits Street - delivering warmth instead of cynicism
    Joe, film review: Nicolas Cage delivers an astonishing performance in low budget drama

    Nicolas Cage shines in low-budget drama Joe

    Cage plays an ex-con in David Gordon Green's independent drama, which has been adapted from a novel by Larry Brown
    How to make your own gourmet ice lollies, granitas, slushy cocktails and frozen yoghurt

    Make your own ice lollies and frozen yoghurt

    Think outside the cool box for this summer's tempting frozen treats
    Ford Fiesta is UK's most popular car of all-time, with sales topping 4.1 million since 1976

    Fiesta is UK's most popular car of all-time

    Sales have topped 4.1 million since 1976. To celebrate this milestone, four Independent writers recall their Fiestas with pride
    10 best reed diffusers

    Heaven scent: 10 best reed diffusers

    Keep your rooms smelling summery and fresh with one of these subtle but distinctive home fragrances that’ll last you months
    Commonwealth Games 2014: Female boxers set to compete for first time

    Female boxers set to compete at Commonwealth Games for first time

    There’s no favourites and with no headguards anything could happen
    Five things we’ve learned so far about Manchester United under Louis van Gaal

    Five things we’ve learned so far about United under Van Gaal

    It’s impossible to avoid the impression that the Dutch manager is playing to the gallery a little
    Screwing your way to the top? Good for Lana Del Rey for helping kill that myth

    Screwing your way to the top?

    Good for Lana Del Rey for helping kill that myth, says Grace Dent
    Will the young Britons fighting in Syria be allowed to return home and resume their lives?

    Will Britons fighting in Syria be able to resume their lives?

    Tony Blair's Terrorism Act 2006 has made it an offence to take part in military action abroad with a "political, ideological, religious or racial motive"
    Beyoncé poses as Rosie the Riveter, the wartime poster girl who became a feminist pin-up

    Beyoncé poses as Rosie the Riveter

    The wartime poster girl became the ultimate American symbol of female empowerment
    The quest to find the perfect pair of earphones: Are custom, 3D printed earbuds the solution?

    The quest to find the perfect pair of earphones

    Earphones don't fit properly, offer mediocre audio quality and can even be painful. So the quest to design the perfect pair is music to Seth Stevenson's ears
    US Army's shooting star: Lt-Col Steven Cole is the man Hollywood calls when it wants to borrow a tank or check a military uniform

    Meet the US Army's shooting star

    Lt-Col Steven Cole is the man Hollywood calls when it wants to borrow a tank or check a military uniform