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Lark and Termite

Jayne Anne Phillips

New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2009, 272 pp., $24.00, hardcover

All the Living

C. E. Morgan

New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2009, 208 pp., $23.00, hardcover


Helen Humphreys

New York & London: W.W. Norton & Compan, 2008, 192 pp., $23.95, hardcover


Jane Anne Phillips' new novel, Lark and Termite, opens in Korea on July 26, 1950, as Corporal Robert (Bobby) Leavitt leads an evacuation of refugees through rice paddies, all the while daydreaming of the pregnant wife, Lola, he left behind. The rhythm of the prose is perfectly cadenced, marching us along with Bobby: "Diverted onto the railroad tracks, they keep a dull time, their sandals slap-thudding the muddy ties.

Chosen for a language-immersion course in Seoul, Bobby learned to speak Korean phonetically. He observes that his South Korean instructors "were angry and their country was defenseless; everyone would pay. Meaning didn't matter; the real content of the words was in sound itself."

Sound is crucial throughout the book. It's not surprising to learn that before the war, Bobby played trumpet in "ballrooms and swank clubs" in Louisville, Kentucky. This is where he met Lola, a jazz singer eight years his senior, a seductive, enigmatic woman with secrets she won't reveal even to Bobby. He knows she has a daughter she sent off to live with her sister in West Virginia, for instance, but "Lola wouldn't say her daughter's name, even to him. I gave her a bird's name. Maybe she'll grow up safe and fly away."

When Bobby thinks of Lola, the prose breaks from the relentless beat of marching into phrases more like jazz riffs:
   Moving in near darkness like a slow, detached shape, she turned on
   the stairs as she paused to look down at him. Leavitt sees that
   shape now in his fragmented sleep or behind his eyes, glowing,
   asexual, like a flicker of light opening into himself. He can't
   shake the feeling that seeing her, wanting her, playing behind her
   in the club, making love to her days and nights in her rooms that
   became his rooms, were practice for staying alive.

Staying alive is Bobby's one task as he moves across the hostile landscape, forced at the end of the first chapter to hide under a railroad overpass when he and the refugees are caught in misguided strafing by American planes.

Another of the book's narrators is Lark, whose soft, Southern voice sets up a new musical pattern. Her story takes place nine years after Bobby's, though on the same day of the month; she is taking care of her younger half-brother, Termite, who is hydrocephalic. He can't speak except to echo what others have just said, and he must be lifted into his chair or into the wagon in which Lark pulls him through the streets of the small town of Winfield, West Kentucky-through its ruined lots and fallow meadows out to the river, where they can sit in a railroad tunnel and hear the trains. "I'm so used to be with Termite," she says, "he feels like alone to me. He's like a hum that always hums so the edge of where I am is blunt and softened."

The present action of the book is condensed into four days and culminates in a flood that traps Lark and Termite in their attic. The narration weaves from Bobby, shot, bleeding, and trapped in the tunnel; to Lark and her aunt Nonie, struggling to keep Social Services from taking Termite; to Termite himself, immersed so completely in the present that his perception consists of sounds and sights blending together into one pulsing experience. There's a stuttering quality to Termite's narration--not in the sense of stuttering speech but of light stuttering through blinds. Termite looks at the world through a three-foot strip of blue dry-cleaning plastic that he likes to hold up in the wind:
   He sees through the blue and it goes away, he sees through the blue
   and it goes away again. He breathes, blowing just high. The blue
   moves but not too much, the blue moves and stays blue and moves.

This stuttering is echoed in the way that events told from Lark's point of view are told again through Termite's, or expanded upon from Nonie's adult perspective. There's a sense in the narrative of moving forward and then folding back, not unlike the way Lark folds food coloring into the icing of one of Termite's birthday cakes. A fierce sense of musicality makes Lark and Termite impossible to put down. Phillips is a one-woman band. For her, language is more than a tool for storytelling. Sounds and cadences collide, merge, or blend, so that reading her prose deepens until it becomes like listening to a symphony or a jazz quartet. I read almost the entire book in one fevered sitting, pushing on despite Sunday chores and family members coming in and out of the room. Lark and Termite thrilled me and will send me back to Phillips's earlier work.

C. E. Morgan's All the Living tells the story of an orphaned young woman, Aloma, whose parents died when she was three, leaving her to be raised by an aunt and uncle who cared for her in a middling, impersonal way that instinctively reserved their best for their own." It was at her aunt's side that Aloma learned to love--though not to play--the piano. Finally allowed to take lessons when she is sent away to mission school, Aloma discovers a talent that she hopes will be her ticket out of the Kentucky hills. But upon graduation, realizing she has nowhere to go, she accepts a position at the school as staff pianist. It's there that she meets Orren, when he brings a group of college agriculture-majors to speak at the school.

Aloma and Orren are both shy and tight-lipped, yet they manage to embark on an impassioned relationship made up mostly of driving the dark roads of the "hollers" at night and making love in the back of Orren's truck.

One night, while Orren struggles to fix a flat tire, Aloma expresses her girlish dream: "Someday I'm gonna be a great piano player and we're gonna get out of here." But when Orren's family is killed in a car accident, he is catapulted into sole ownership of their tobacco farm, and Aloma's dream is subsumed by the gruntwork of the farm. She feels their love blunted by Orren's labor, his bending in the fields all day, browning in the sun so that he looks like a stranger to her, not even of the same race, while she struggles with the unfamiliar tasks of cooking and keeping the old farmhouse clean during a drought that turns the soil to dust daily.

Aloma's frustration leads to the first of many arguments:
   She pushed at him impatiently, and for a second felt a furthering
   wild urge to beat at him, strike him across the face and chest for
   having brought her here to the sorry edge of the mountains, the one
   place in the world she wanted to leave behind her, where nothing
   worked, where every last thing wasted flesh into bone.

Later, by way of reconciliation, Orren suggests she go down to his mama's church in Hansonville: "See if you might could pick around a bit on their piano. During the day or something, I don't know. If they need a piano player, maybe."

Morgan's prose is often marked by a stifling plainness that matches Aloma's feeling of being trapped. However, there are moments when the language twists free from the flattened confines of Orren's and Aloma's rural Kentucky speech and bursts into something like song. After a beautiful, awkward passage in which Orren attempts to sing a hymn in his "soft and artless" voice, Aloma notices:
   The edge of his turned face was lit then like the nimbic burning
   line of a cloud, so fine and bright that she turned her gaze away
   and saw then a flock of birds, barn swallows from the look of them
   but too far away to tell for sure, that had risen up in a chorus
   and taken to the air. They flew out together in what was a strange
   and shifting shape over the tobacco field, out and up, thinning for
   a moment so that they were no more than a blade in the sky and then
   swooping down now, lost in the distant shadow of the mountains.

The difference in language is akin to the divide in Aloma herself--the poverty of expression learned as a habit of her life in the hills, and the longing of her soul for something larger.

When Aloma begins to play piano at the church, she tells Orren not to come along because she doesn't want the preacher to know they are living together, unmarried. Then, her growing attraction to the preacher, Bell Johnson, and his reciprocal interest muddies what began simply enough as a way to escape the daily grind of her chores and play the piano.

Perhaps Morgan's master's degree in Theological Studies from Harvard Divinity School plays a role in the power she is able to summon in Bell's sermons. Delivered in the imperfect grammar of the hills, they nonetheless resonate, making some of the best reading in the book: "I been lonesome too--" Bell says. "And grace hammered me, it was like my bones breaking, it broke me up, brothers and sisters, and it hurt. Grace don't always feel like something good. It cut up my heart."

At other times there's a flat intelligence and humor to Morgan's phrasing. Aloma, taking on the task of feeding the chickens, comes to accept the chore "though it was a pity to be confronted with such stupidity as the chickens managed to reveal on a daily basis." All the Living is a tautly satisfying read, describing a love as hardscrabble as the drought-ridden tobacco farm the couple struggles to keep. There are no easy answers, Morgan shows us. And thank God for that.

Harriet Marsh, a widow in her forties, is picking her way gingerly across the roof of the cathedral in the factory town of Coventry, England. It's the night of November 14, 1940, and Harriet is filling in for a neighbor too injured to fulfill his role as a fire-watcher. Because of its armament factories, Coventry is a prime target for the Germans and has been the victim of seventeen air attacks in the past two-and-a-half months. So it is with dread but not really surprise that Harriet hears the drone of German planes and witnesses a bombing that sets the city afire.

Most of this slim novel comprises the events of this historic night, though we also learn, through flashbacks, of Harriet's young husband Owen, to whom she was married for only a matter of days before he left to fight in World War I, where he was killed at the Battle of Ypres. Harriet also remembers an artist named Maeve, a woman about her age whom she met on the way home from dropping Owen at the train. The two women struck up a friendship that, unfortunately, lasted only that one day.

That Maeve and Harriet should meet again, twenty years later, on the night of the bombing, is the one contrivance in this generally unadorned novel. Frankly, the story might have been stronger without it. Any two people connecting on such a night is story enough, and there wasn't really enough substance to Maeve and Harriet's earlier meeting to warrant the reconnection.

Overall, Humphreys brings this horrific night in Coventry alive with details so bizarre they have to be real. Even before I knew that she had relied partially on eyewitness accounts of the recent bombing of Baghdad, the details had an urgency that transcended mere historical accuracy. A bird, fully cooked, drops at Harriet's feet on the roof of the cathedral. A river of flaming butter pours through the streets. A man boils water for tea in a kitchen with no walls. Tinned goods in shops explode from the heat. At times there is an eerie serenity to some of the images:
   Harriet looks up and sees four land mines drifting down under
   parachutes. They are lit from beneath by the fires, the soft filmy
   hoods of light making the bombs seems like a school of jellyfish,
   not descending, but swimming up out of the darkness.

Humphreys writes, "When something is unnatural, there is no new language for it. The words to describe it must be borrowed words, from the old language of natural things." Humprehys' skill in borrowing--and renewing--language is the real triumph of this book.

Trish Crapo is a writer and photographer who lives in Leyden, Massachusetts.
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Title Annotation:Good Reads; 'Lark and Termite', 'All the Living' and 'Coventry'
Author:Crapo, Trish
Publication:The Women's Review of Books
Article Type:Book review
Date:May 1, 2009
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