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Book Review: Lark and Termite. (Densely poetic and powerful, apparently)

Jayne Anne Phillips: Lark and Termite
Vintage Books, 2009

Surely the most carefully crafted sentence in a novel is the opening one. So when a reader is faced with an opening sentence that would not only have the Microsoft grammar checker going crazy with those irritating green wiggly lines but which would fox a literate human, you wonder what the author is playing at.

He’d shipped out to Occupied Japan in December ’49; whatever baby was a tucked seed inside Lola’s sex, a nub the size of a tailbone.

I’ve grappled with this sentence many times and still can’t parse it.

The second sentence might normally be expected to follow from the first, but in Lark and Termite it’s a contrast, abruptly signalled in italics – the start of an historical conversation that the main character had with his girlfriend. (“You want to marry me? You going to tell your mother who you’re marrying?“).

It’s a disjointed way to start a novel, and the trend continues throughout the first chapter, which mixes present tense with blurred backstory, and intersperses sentences with unclear syntax (“Mother may I, mother me.”) with sentences where a British reader needs subtitles. (“He liked telling everyone straight off he was Seminole and did any jack man want to discuss it.”)

But among the confusion and flashbacks one can gather that the main character is a corporal in the US army who happened to be learning Korean in Seoul when the Korean War broke out in 1950. Somehow he ends up in the trail of refugees as the US military aircraft start strafing them at No Gun Ri.

And of course, it’s the Korean content which caught the eye of the eagle-eyed curators at Daunt Books in Marylebone High Street W1, who accordingly included the novel in their Korea section. And reading the enthusiastic reviews from the Sunday Times, Independent and New York Times on the back cover, I thought it might be worth a read, so picked it up on a recent visit.

Chapter 2. Jump forward to the same date 9 years later, to a new set of characters in the US. Damn, this author doesn’t make things easy. I skip ahead to chapter 3 to find that its viewpoint is yet a third character, at least on the same day as the second. But the narrative is choppy enough without such an episodic structure.

I return to the contents page and find a lifeline: fortunately it tells you which chapters cover which characters, so you can scrap the order that the book was written in, and, like a DVD with special features, read the narrative in chronological order.

Anyone who knows the story of No Gun Ri will know that it ends in death for the refugees. And this strand of the story is rather too strung out (five chapters). One hates to say it, but Corporal Robert Leavitt takes a devilishly long time to die, as he drifts in and out of consciousness in that infamous tunnel.

I returned to chapter 2 and started reading the story set in 1959. It was slow, quite homely stuff, but without much to get you interested. I don’t mind a dull book every now and then, but the synopsis promised that “the mystery of Lola and Nonie’s relationship slowly unravels” so I hoped that we were going to get to some sort of denouement in the end. I plodded on.

Half-way through, I showed the book to my wife, an avid reader of all sorts of fiction, particularly women’s fiction. She read the synopsis on the back. “I can’t believe you’re reading this,” she exclaimed. “This is the classic synopsis of a book which is about precisely nothing.” Well, to me, “a rich and rewarding novel about the power of loss and love, the echoing ramifications of war, family secrets, dreams and ghosts, and the unseen, almost magical bonds that unite and sustain us” sounds rather good. But my wife is a much wiser soul and pronounced that all that guff was cover for the author to ramble on about her angst.

But inside the back cover was another enthusiastic review, this time from the Financial Times, so I battled on, desperate to prove her wrong.

And wished I hadn’t. Towards the end, the author signalled that some momentous things were about to happen, because there was a big storm and a flood which provided the backdrop. Problem is, I didn’t spot anything momentous, or any mystery unravelling.

I got to the end. So what are we left with? An over-extended imagining of the No Gun Ri calamity, intertwined with a dull story about nothing much. The connection between the two strands is that the disabled boy in 1959 is the son of the soldier, as flagged in the first sentence of the book. And the Korean family that the soldier is trying to help bears some coincidental resemblance to the 1959 family. But there’s no structural reason to run the two stories in parallel – because there’s no echo or interplay between them – other than to distract the reader from the dullness of each.

“Extraordinary and brilliant” Sunday Times

“Mind-numbingly tedious” London Korean Links

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