In these desperate times for the publishing industry, a lot of review copies of new books now come accompanied by "personal" letters from editors singing the praises of the work under consideration. As a reviewer who routinely glances at many of these letters extolling the "luminous," "urgent," "startling" and/or "fresh-voiced" quality of a new work, I was caught up short by the note included in an advance copy of Jayne Anne Phillips' new novel, Lark & Termite. The note began: "It's a joy to send you Jayne Anne Phillips' new novel. But it's hard to define its unique quality."
"Uh-oh," I thought. It's hard to define its unique quality? If that's the best that a senior editor can do to promote a book, either letter writing truly has become a lost art or the novel is really a dud.
Or, then there's the prize lurking behind door number three: it really is hard to define its unique quality. I'll give it a whirl, but Lark & Termite is a category of story unto itself: mystical without being gooey; wry and terribly moving; as ornately contrived as Dickens, as poetic as Morrison, yet unselfconscious in tone and peopled with vivid, salt-of-the-earth characters who mostly accept the limits on life's possibilities with a shrug and another cup of coffee.
At its core, Lark & Termite is a war story. As one of the characters here says: "People forget that a soldier's death goes on for years — for a generation, really. They leave people behind."
The soldier in question is Cpl. Robert Leavitt, a Jewish kid from Philadelphia who's shipped off to Korea in 1950, the very beginning of the Korean War. Even worse luck, Leavitt finds himself on the move with a mass of South Korean refugees at No Gun Ri, the locale of a controversial Pulitzer-Prize winning investigative story by the Associated Press. In 1999, AP reporters broke the story that South Korean civilians attempting to flee the enemy by crossing American military lines were shot down by the American troops. (The number of civilians killed remains under dispute.)
What's not under dispute, from the opening of Phillips' novel, is that Leavitt will die in Korea. And yet it's impossible not to root for a benevolent pardon for him. In this scene, a wounded Leavitt has been dragged into a dark railway tunnel by a young Korean girl, who's also trying to shelter her blind brother and an old woman. Phillips describes how the girl, her clothes covered in Leavitt's blood, crawls to a stream at the back of the cave to get water:
"The soldiers answer any skitter of stones, any involuntary cry or motion, with artillery rounds, one group shooting in response to the other. The girl waits, moves, waits, crawling, flat to the ground. ... [Leavitt] hears, in the dark, the sound of the girl pulling off her bunched shirt, feels her throw it into the water by one long sleeve. ... She drags the shirt back over the ground. He hears her bury her face in the wet cloth, drink the squeezed water. ... Finally she holds the wet cloth in her arms and turns to come back to them, moving against such resistance, such terrible drag, close to the tunnel wall."
All is for naught, we know, because other sections of Phillips' novel jump ahead to 1959 and focus on the "people" Leavitt left behind: most importantly, a severely handicapped son nicknamed "Termite" and his older teenage half-sister, "Lark." Lark and Termite, who are both commanding presences, live in a river town in West Virginia with their aunt, a waitress.
The two storylines share moments of almost supernatural convergence: for instance, Lark and Termite's river town floods, and they ultimately find deliverance near a railway tunnel not unlike the one at No Gun Ri. But the otherworldly intersections are not as hocus pocus as they might be, because Phillips is such a beautifully restrained writer. Her magic pops out of the mundane — it lurks in shabby living rooms and diners, offhand remarks and unconscious gestures.
I said earlier that the plot of Lark & Termite is as highly contrived, as loaded with coincidences as a Dickens novel — and I meant that as a compliment. But the saving graces in Phillips' more threadbare universe come courtesy, not of a Dickensian benevolent god, but out of the love that lingers between people, across oceans and generations.