Lark and Termite share the same mother, but have two different fathers. Lark is a willowy beauty who grows from child to adolescent in the course of the book. Her little brother is physically handicapped, unable to walk, control his movements or talk – at least in a conventional way most can understand. He's also the center of her world. She loves him ferociously.
Dropping out of high school early, Lark attends typing school at night when their Aunt Nonie, who's raising them, can watch Termite. Lark hopes to find a secretarial job to help support the household. Aunt Nonie works in a local diner, run by her long-time love, Charlie. And Termite? His lifespan is uncertain; the details of his care once Lark goes to work haven't been ironed out yet.
Every day Lark spends all her time with Termite, taking him on rides in his wagon. His favorite things are music, especially holding a radio up to his ear to make it loud as possible, and going to the train yard. Lark is everything to him, so attuned to his wants and needs there's no need for words between them.
Lola, sister to Nonie and the mother of Lark and Termite, is a singer in a whore house who falls in love with Bobby, a soldier going off to war. The two impetuously decide to marry once Lola becomes pregnant. Shortly after, her husband is shipped out to fight in the Korean War. Knowing she's unfit to care for either child, she sends each to live with her sister.
Finally, there's the story of Bobby in Korea, woven through the book. Caught in a nightmare, carrying a photo of the seven-months pregnant Lola with him – in an empty cigarette pack protected by cellophane, his only hope is to get home to Lola and their baby to be.
The basic plot lines do no justice to the beauty and complexity of this book. Written from each major character's perspective, chapter by chapter, Phillips seemingly effortlessly keeps each voice distinct. The way the plot lines cross is impressive, yet impossible to reveal without giving away too much of this gorgeous book. It's also impossible to include the cast of slightly more minor characters, who play such huge roles.
Poetic describes the prose, but the impact it has on the reader… How to elucidate that? Joy, sorrow, fear, worry… It's all there, all rendered in beautiful, beautiful prose. It drives me nearly mad I can't find words to tell you how lovely, how eloquent, how heart-achingly beautiful this book truly is.
That it was a National Book Award finalist gives some idea of its quality, but if this one didn't win I can't imagine the book that did. I can't imagine writing better than this. At its most basic, the book is an updated The Sound and the Fury, with a few twists. Some may think that a rip off, using the basic framework of a classic to tell a story. In this case, I consider it more an homage. Because there is nothing new under the sun, and only so many plots.
So many books try to imitate, but only a rare few come near duplicating. Jayne Anne Phillips' book is in the latter category, using Faulkner's masterpiece, but from a more female perspective. Keeping the drama, the wrenching sorrow and many of the same elements, her story is more than a mere shadow of Faulkner's. No one can touch the literary classic, and it's my theory Phillips wasn't even trying. But what she's created is an elegant stand-alone, a book great enough to stand beside TSATF on the shelf, one very few writers could come near pulling off.
Impressive. That's all I can say.