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Originally published Friday, January 9, 2009 at 12:00 AM

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Book review

"Lark and Termite" tells stories of siblings' lives and adults as well

"Lark and Termite" is novelist Jayne Anne Phillips' eloquent story of the strong protecting the weak, as a 17-year-old girl tries to care for her disabled half-brother. Phillips reads at 7:30 p.m. Tuesday at Seattle's Elliott Bay Book Co.

Special to The Seattle Times

Author appearance

Jayne Anne Phillips

The author of "Lark and Termite" will read at 7:30 p.m. Tuesday at Seattle's Elliott Bay Book Co. (206-624-6600;

"Lark and Termite"

by Jayne Anne Phillips

Knopf, 272 pp., $24

In Jayne Anne Phillips' wonderful fourth novel, Lark is a 17-year-old girl who cares for her severely disabled 9-year-old half-brother, Termite. They live with their dead mother's sister, Nonie, in West Virginia. Termite's father was a young soldier in Korea when the North invaded the South and forced the Americans to retreat; he died under American fire at the village of No Gun Ri in a tunnel, trying to protect fleeing civilians.

Phillips develops this theme about protecting the weak as the story alternates between two settings and times: in the tunnel in South Korea when Termite's father is dying at exactly the time of Termite's birth in 1950, and in Winfield, W.Va., for several days in 1959, when a storm brings a devastating flood to the moribund mining town, forcing Lark to flee with Termite to keep him from being removed from her care by Social Services authorities.

Lark's closeness to Termite is intuitive; even big-hearted Nonie admits that it "was only Lark's pleasure in him that changed how I felt" about caring for the baby born so damaged. Lark knows what and who he likes and fears; she believes he can hear and understand when people talk about him, although her aunt doesn't.

The siblings' life stories are revealed, as are those of the adults in their story — all of whom have had their share of disappointment in life. There are so many parallels between the scenes of Termite's father's death and Termite's apprehensions of his world that we are given to understand that his father's spirit graces his life.

Phillips' rendering of Termite's consciousness is fantastically kinesthetic: He can feel "smashed air" swirling around him when he is afraid; "pictures that touch him move and change, they lift and turn, stutter their edges and blur into one other." He is prescient and knows things other characters do not know; his point of view is a secret between him and the reader.

Phillips dramatizes the flood to wash away the reticence of the adult characters and force certain revelations. Most of this novel is riveting and moving, but the author falters at the end where she awkwardly announces what she intends for one persistent and unclear motif to mean.

Lark's magnetic hopefulness comes through in everything she does. Not knowing Termite's real birthday, she often makes him pretty cakes, and loves to present them: "People ought to see something pretty moving toward them. That way they get time to want what they really can have." In this novel about sibling love set in the 1950s, Lark's pragmatism, clear-eyed love and determination to hold on to her brother are strikingly fresh and heroic.

Copyright © 2009 The Seattle Times Company

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