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Her Brother's Keeper

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Reviewed by Ron Charles
Sunday, January 25, 2009

LARK AND TERMITE

By Jayne Anne Phillips

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Knopf. 254 pp. $24

There are books you recommend to everybody, and then there are books you share cautiously, even protectively. Jayne Anne Phillips's "Lark and Termite" is that second kind, a mysterious, affecting novel you'll want to talk about only with others who have fallen under its spell. On the surface, nothing about the West Virginia family in "Lark and Termite" seems especially noteworthy, except perhaps the consistency of their misfortune, but the author reveals their tangled secrets in such a profound and intimate way that these ordinary, wounded people become both tragic and magnificent.

Phillips has garnered plenty of praise in the past, but she's a slow writer by today's book-a-year standard, and she has made us wait almost a decade since her most recent novel, "MotherKind". The product of that labor is this strangely discordant story of violence and passion, affection and longing. It takes place during two very different Julys ? 1950 and 1959 ? in two very different places.

The first page drops us immediately into the early days of the Korean War. Devastating losses have pushed Cpl. Robert Leavitt quickly up the ranks, and now, as the North Koreans advance, he commands a thinly stretched platoon charged with evacuating refugees. In the ensuing chaos, American fighter pilots strafe the peasants under his charge and send them scurrying into a tunnel, where they're pinned down by panicked U.S. servicemen.

Phillips's story is inspired by the alleged No Gun Ri massacre, which was the subject of the Associated Press's controversial Pulitzer Prize-winning exposé in 2000, but there's nothing polemic about her riveting portrayal of that event. She's interested only in the waste of war and the heroism of young Cpl. Leavitt, who continues caring for the doomed refugees despite his own injuries. "He sees that war never ends," she writes. "It's all one war despite players or location, war that sleeps dormant for years or months, then erupts and lifts its flaming head to find regimes changed, topography altered, weaponry recast."

Knowing what transpired at No Gun Ri saps none of the suspense from this gripping scene because Phillips keeps a tight focus on Leavitt's interaction with a young Korean girl and her blind brother. As the three of them struggle to survive, Leavitt's thoughts drift back to the vibrant bar singer he married just before shipping out, and he senses, correctly, that she's giving birth to a son in the States on this very day.

Through that mesmerizing war tale is woven the other story, set in West Virginia in 1959. Leavitt's now 9-year-old son, nicknamed Termite, is severely physically and mentally handicapped, unable to speak or walk. He's cared for by his tireless aunt and his devoted 17-year-old half-sister, Lark. Phillips narrates in each of these three characters' voices, carefully revealing the complicated, sad history of their makeshift family. Lark is determined to care for her half-brother no matter how that burden might constrain her own life. She never accepts the discouraging diagnoses about his mental perceptions, and she realizes that he's all she has left of her vanished mother. "From the time I was a kid," she says, "I thought his head was heavy because there was so much in it he couldn't tell or say. That everything had stayed in him, whether he recognized the pictures or not. That he'd kept all the words I couldn't call up, our mother's words and words about her. Words from before we were born, what I heard until I was three and forgot."

Lark's aunt, a single woman with no kids of her own, is doing the best she can by her sister's children, but past betrayals have made her wary of accepting help from anyone, even her hardworking boyfriend, who seems willing to wait forever to regain her trust. But she's more concerned with the problem of giving Lark a normal life while keeping Termite from being institutionalized. A nosey social worker keeps poking around, offering helpful advice and a new wheelchair, but the aunt is deeply suspicious.

In the novel's most surreal and lyrical sections, Termite describes the patchwork of sounds, images and meanings trapped in his inert body. All this takes place as a violent storm threatens to flood the town, a calamity that eventually brings long-buried secrets to the surface and washes away the family's tenuous structure.

I know it sounds like too much is going on in Lark and Termite, but these disparate elements resonate with each other in a most captivating manner. It's confusing only in the way anything truly profound can be. On one level, Phillips is writing a kind of family mystery, and the slowly interconnecting revelations about how Lark and Termite ended up in their aunt's care are thoroughly engrossing, charged with pathos and a surprising degree of eroticism. At another level, though, Phillips is doing something strange and mystical. There's a subtle sympathy between the Korean War story and the events that take place exactly nine years later. Haunting echoes and repetitions overcome the differences in time and place: The Korean girl and her blind brother whom Leavitt tries to save display an uncanny resemblance to Lark and Termite; the threat bearing down on the refugees in the tunnel is a striking reflection of the storm about to destroy Winfield, W.Va.; and in both worlds, self-sacrificing compassion manages to overcome the barriers imposed by cruelty or language or even death.

This isn't merely a matter of stylistic experimentation, a kind of Appalachian magical realism. With her striking mixture of hallucinatory poetry and gritty realism, Phillips is trying to articulate the transcendence of love, the sort of unity among deeply devoted people that reverberates beneath the rational world. As the novel moves toward a crescendo of harrowing revelations and brutal confrontations, Phillips surprises us again with another disorienting touch of mysticism and a finale that mingles despair and triumph, naiveté and spiritual insight, a startling demonstration of "how lightning fast things can go right or wrong." ·

Ron Charles is a senior editor of Book World. He can be reached at charlesr@washpost.com.


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