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Lark and Termite

'Lark and Termite'
A novel by Jayne Anne Phillips
Published by Knopf, 254 pages, $24
On sale Tuesday

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With the publication of "Black Tickets" in 1979, Jayne Anne Phillips' critical success grew, in large part because of her passionate, often dark voice, that of a writer in love with words, family relationships and character. A National Book Critics Circle Award finalist, Phillips once remarked that she "composes like a poet."

That poetic voice all but disappeared in "MotherKind," a disappointing novel published nearly nine years ago, whose mundane third-person narration often failed to resonate.

In "Lark and Termite," her first book since "MotherKind," Phillips returns to the exquisite writing that built her reputation. Still intent upon weaving stories about families — their secrets, loves and ambivalences — Phillips tells the fascinating tale of Lark, 17, and Termite, 9, her handicapped half-brother. Their mother, Lola, gave up both children.

Lark had been living with her Aunt Nonie for several years when Termite arrived. As a baby, he was so small that Nonie called him a "mite," which evolved into the nickname Termite. Termite's father, a young soldier named Robert Leavitt, and mother are both dead.

Doctors have diagnosed Termite as "minimally hydrocephalic and visually impaired ... He would never walk." Despite his disabilities, Termite is perceptive to a degree that is metaphysical; He plays with a blue ribbon, a palpable representation of his ability to see across time and space.

Lark has no idea who her own father was, and Nonie tries to keep her family history from her. As the story unfolds in the face of an oncoming flood, Lark learns more about her mother, father and Termite.

The book's setting alternates between West Virginia and Korea during four days in 1950, 1951 and 1959. Cpl. Leavitt, 21, is killed along with many Korean civilians, by American soldiers during the infamous No Gun Ri tunnel massacre.

The scenes in 1950 Korea parallel and prefigure the devastation of the flood: A young Korean boy, girl and old woman with Leavitt in the tunnel are reflections of Termite, Lark and their mother. The Korean boy seems mystical, with a "blind hyperalert focus and awareness." The young girl protects the boy during the attack, just as Lark is Termite's protector during the flood.

A minor character gives readers a key to unlocking the meaning of the parallelisms in this story when she says, "People forget that a soldier's death goes on for years — for a generation really."

The scene shifts to 1959 Winfield, W.Va., where an advancing storm is about to flood the town.

"Dimpled water stands in the tracks of the alley, and I'm staring out the screen door, feeling the rush of breath falling water makes," Lark tells us.

In Korea, Leavitt sees the tunnel in West Virginia "reflected in the moonlit surface" as he is dying. Shot in the spine, Leavitt dies as Termite is born with a malformed spine.

The story's rich symbols and parallels are carried along by the sounds, images and rhythms of Phillips' wordcraft. This is Phillips writing at her best.

Joseph Peschel is a freelance writer and critic in South Dakota.

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