Children teeter much closer to the edge of abandonment than most people are willing to admit. When working-class parents undergo the various traumas of adulthood—disease, divorce, unemployment, death, mental breakdown—their dependents either learn to make do for themselves, or get shunted around to whoever will agree to take care of them. And in these tough economic times, it seems all too likely that homeless street urchins won’t stay confined to the pages of Dickens and Little Orphan Annie. Jayne Anne Phillips evokes the fragile bonds of caring that keep children alive in her latest novel, Lark & Termite. The title refers to a teenage girl and her disabled, mentally damaged younger brother, the children of a lounge singer, cared for by their aunt Nonie in 1950s West Virginia.
Phillips switches narrative voices in order to tell each character’s story in the first person. Her chapters describing the experience of Termite’s father, a Marine corporal injured while escorting refugees during the Korean War, shine with a white-hot brilliance that gradually spreads its illumination over the initially flatter, softer stories of his American family. Pulled from tunnel to underpass by a teenage girl whose brother he had briefly carried, the soldier experiences in reverse what Lark and Termite undergo back in the States. With every crisis, it seems increasingly implausible that the helpless characters will continue to be sheltered by people whose obligations are entirely self-imposed.
The family’s secrets leak out slowly, seemingly by accident, giving the story the languorous feel of a David Gordon Green film rather than the melodrama its plotline suggests. While Phillips’ attempt to evoke the inner life of the uncommunicative Termite is only intermittently successful, the powerful voices of Nonie and the corporal rescue the story. Lark And Termite climaxes with a hundred-year flood that stretches all social connections to the breaking point, revealing the strength of seemingly ephemeral relationships. Here, the book’s narrative drive, previously fragmented and uneven due to the multiple points of view, gels with preternatural energy. As the floodwaters rise, the novel ends in a rush of emotion that sweeps away the contemplative quiet of its beginnings, while its vulnerable children find security in love and memory.