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Lark & Termite, By Jayne Anne Phillips

Biblical resonances lurk in the background of this powerful and moral dysfunctional family saga

The transformation of evil into good is one of the biblical aspects of this nevertheless secular tale of two siblings, the unlikely named Lark and Termite. Like her US compatriot Marilynne Robinson, who has also taken time between novels (this is Jayne Anne Phillips's first novel for nine years) and moves her narrative along inch by inch, and whose work also reflects on biblical narratives as well as values, Phillips is a moral writer. But, also like Robinson, she resists conservative urges: the punishing god of Christian faith is absent from both writers' works. Instead, we have compulsive, innovative, challenging novels that try to map a way through the morass of cultural and personal values.

Lark and Termite share the same mother, a jazz singer called Lola, but both are brought up by Lola's sister, Noreen. Lark's father is unknown to her, and Termite's father, Robert Leavitt, is killed fighting in the Korean war. Lola takes her own life shortly after the birth of her second child, Termite, a boy who cannot walk or talk. It's Lark who watches over him and shows him maternal care and love; it's Noreen who works back-breaking hours in a diner run by her boyfriend, Charlie, to give her adoptive family a roof over its head.

Phillips tells the story of this ordinary, yet extraordinary, family in alternating voices: first Leavitt, in a muscular yet often sentimental narrative, wonders about the fate of his pregnant wife back home while battling through Korean forests. Then we hear of Lark's focus on her brother, whom she spends her life protecting, and also of her desire for the personal history she has been denied. Next we empathise with Noreen's capability and strength, which sometimes make her hard. And finally, Termite, his impressions and reactions to words and sounds conveyed in a stream of consciousness that counters, but appropriates, the world around him.

That this family is saved by, and from, an all-consuming flood isn't the only biblical resonance: an "angel" in the form of a mysterious social-services worker, Robert Stamble, appears and offers help. Lola's and Leavitt's love for each other offers them the possibility of redemption, while Termite himself – mute, suffering, yet always loved – is where salvation will be found. Appalling aspects of life such as war, suffering and death are not where this remarkable and astonishingly, beautifully written story ends, but where it begins. There's a longing here for something better, but also a belief that it can be found.

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