31 March 2010

Lark and Termite by Jayne Anne Phillips

Thoughts and Reflections:
I came across this book through Canada Reads on the CBC this past February/March. I was initially caught by title. It opens with a scene during the Korean War in 1950. Typically, I’m not a big fan of war-time stories and I found the writing style difficult to penetrate initially, but as I became better acquainted with the writing style and characters, I became more interested.

The format is rather interesting, having multiple characters reflect on the same events on the same day. The book takes place over a four day period, with three characters speaking to their experience. There is the occasional break to the same day 9-years earlier in Korea where a different character speaks to his own experience. Again, I initially appreciated this aspect, however became weary of living the same events over and over again. I also found it strange that these reflections or diary entries were written in third person, rather than first person.

This book was relatively interesting to read, but overall I found it somewhat cliché, overly idealistic, and superficial. The descriptions were long and drawn out, despite the author receiving acclamation for her descriptive methods. It touches on some heavy topics, but only skims the surface. Motifs, such as that of the river and the colour blue, were poorly developed, though initially intriguing. The author pushed a heavy spiritual line in the forms of unexplained spiritual connections between characters as well as an “angel in disguise” character. I found even these poorly developed, cliche and predictable. I was not expecting the spiritual element and found it somewhat silly. The extra sensory perception of Termite, a severely disabled boy, came off overly idealistic and unconvincing. The connection between him and his father and the people with whom his father died, came off ridiculous. These elements begin to play a greater role in events towards the end of the novel. I began to disconnect from the story at this point. With this spiritual angle and connections, the book tale seemed to digress and become hokey.

The ending was frustrating. The climax of the ridiculous occured when the teenage boy leap into a moving train car on his motorcycle to run away with Lark and Termite. At this point, I couldn't wait for the book to end.

The book had potential, but ended up being ridiculous and superficial. I feel somewhat cruel in writing such a harsh review, but I cannot say I enjoyed reading this book. However, I have no regrets having read it, especially such a highly acclaimed author and novel. I am somewhat surprised at how highly recommended this novel has been, but perhaps I’ve simply missed the point.

Brief Synopsis:
This novel takes place in 1959 Winfield, West Virginia with brief interludes to Korea in 1950. Lark, the protagonist lives with her aunt and takes care of her disabled half-bother, Termite, whilst taking secretarial courses in the evenings. Lark is uncertain the identity of her father, but knows her mother is dead. During a flood, Lark goes through old boxes of her mother’s and discovers the identity of her father. Termite’s father was killed in the Korean War in 1950. He died whilst Lola, Lark’s mother, was in labour with Termite. The story flashes back to his final days, which are the same days that the Winfield floods and Lark discovers the identity of her father.

The Author:
Jayne Anne Phillips was born in 1952 in West Virginia. She graduated from West Virginia University in 1974, before going on to graduate from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop at the University of Iowa. Lark and Termite is her fourth novel, published in 2009. She has received a number of awards and fellowships, including the Massechusetts Book Award for her 2000 novel MotherKind, the Guggenheim Fellowship, and two fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts. She is currently Professor of English and Director a new Master’s of Fine Arts Program at Rutgers-Newark, the State University of New Jersey.

Main Themes:
To be honest, I had a hard time identifying themes or any purpose to this novel. This book revolves around the connections between people: physical, spiritual, and real. People are thrown together often times and this book provides a commentary on how this particular set interacts and responds to each other. The metaphysical/spiritual elements were poorly developed and unconvincing, though repeatedly brought up in the duration of the tale.

Things I Liked about This Book:
1) The characters were enjoyable and well developed
2) The format was interesting, though failed to keep my attention in the long run. Nonetheless, I appreciated the experiment

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Cliche...was what I thought too.
NYC in my book club...many people liked the book. I come from Fla and grew up in Coral Gables so it annoyed me at the outset that the facts were incorrect and the Fla experience was used as a cliche. (Dr. Johnson quote: "the most artful tale raises little curiousity when it is known to be false." Idler.
The jew boy is so poorly introduced and so is the half breed Seminole whose Korean sex scenes are somewhat disgusting. JAP wrote amazing scenes as short stories in the 1970's. She has been teaching instead of growing.