Wednesday, March 11, 2009

A Bird and a Bug

In one of the early years of our book group in the 1980’s we had a list of recommended books that included Machine Dreams by Jayne Anne Phillips. But we never selected it to read as a group nor did I read it myself. Then earlier this year there seemed to be a lot of press for Phillips’ new novel Lark and Termite . It was time to become acquainted with this author.

As has been mentioned in a previous blog, many of the best stories are in fact two stories. This new novel alternates between events at the beginning of the Korean War in Korea in 1950 from the perspective of a Corporal Robert Leavitt; and life in West Virginia in 1959 as it unfolds for Nonie, her niece Lark and her nephew Termite. Lark and Termite are half-siblings, the children of Nonie’s sister Lola. At the time of the novel, Lark is 17 and Termite is 9. The connection is that Leavitt is Termite’s father (but not Lark’s). The author presents it in a way that is not at all as confusing as I have made it sound.

Each of these four main characters tells a part of the story, and sometimes the same part, from his or her own perspective. This is especially challenging as Termite is severely handicapped - he cannot walk, can barely make some intelligible sounds, and has very limited vision if any. The chapters in his voice have a different cadence but are certainly the work of a creative and sensitive author. It makes you wonder just how much he may perceive (he seems to be especially sensitive to sounds) and if he is frustrated in trying to communicate it. It is a good reminder that lack of perception does not necessarily follow from lack of ability to communicate. Lark’s complete devotion to her half-brother and her selflessness in taking care of him are both heart-warming and heart-breaking.

There is much to satisfy in this novel: history (the incidents at No Gun Ri); just a little magical realism (the new wheel chair); mystery (who is Lark’s father, why are the children being raised by their aunt); and Mother Nature (a devastating flood).

You can find links to author interviews and podcast readings at Phillips' website.

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