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.
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