Our connections with others are sometimes obvious, but often we are influenced by people we are not aware of or with whom we see little connection. It is as if absence can be a stronger connector than presence, and in the hands of Jayne Anne Phillips, we find those connectors, not just in people but events.
“Lark and Termite” follows two storylines that connect in ways the participants will never see. The story takes place in the 1950s and focuses on Lark, a young woman on the verge of adulthood, and her younger stepbrother, Termite, who is unable to speak or walk. Their mother is the absent Lola, but they are raised by a loving aunt, Nonie, who works at a “greasy spoon” owned by the man she loves but will not commit to. The other story is of Termite’s father, Corporal Robert Leavitt, a soldier in Korea who does not live to see the birth of his child.
The absence of these parents is as palatable as the presence of those who love and support Lark and Termite. Lark’s birth father is unknown to her and we are not sure what Termite understands. Phillips tells the story through the voices of the different characters, and through Termite, we see a world of wonder and joy. However, his voice is the weakest in the novel not because of the character, but because Phillips lets his voice slip out of character too often. But that is a rare slip in this otherwise strong novel. In fact, Phillips excels in giving an authentic voice to these West Virginian people struggling to make it day to day. They are poor, but they do not focus on their poverty as much as each other. Nonie takes these children in with no complaint and Lark takes care of Termite since he is more comfortable with her than at school. The neighbors are a father and sons abandoned by their wife and mother; they are a hardscrabble lot but they make sure that Lark, Termite, and Nonie are also taken care of. There are no saintly figures in this novel, but there are real people who make mistakes, care for others, and focus on the next day. For Lark and Termite, the community is very present and generally supportive.
But that does not mean Lark never wonders about her absent mother and her unknown father. And for the scenes in Korea, as Leavitt fights for his life, it is with the absence of his wife and the presence of a young girl trying to care for him. We are changed by those with us as well as those far away. Phillips bounces between Leavitt’s story in Korea and Lark’s in West Virginia, and neither one knows the impact they have had on each other even though they never met. Their connection is Lola, and she is absent from both of them at crucial times.
While Phillips spends a long time (a bit too much) setting up the climax, events at the end unreel at a dizzying pace and in unexpected ways. This is not simply a “slice of life” look at these different people, but a story that is driven to a point where the people must decide their future. Those decisions became both easier and harder because they become more informed of what has been missing. Awareness of an absence becomes a powerful presence.