Lark and Termite
by Jayne Anne Phillips
(Knopf, $24)

The central characters in Jayne Anne Phillips’ “piercing” new novel are apt to “take up permanent residence” in many readers’ minds, said Michiko Kakutani in The New York Times. In small-town West Virginia, 17-year-old Lark and her developmentally disabled 9-year-old half-brother, Termite, are bracing for a flood when Lark begins puzzling out why their mother chose to abandon them. It’s a wonder that the book never devolves into soap opera, particularly because their story is interlaced with flashbacks to 1950 North Korea, where Termite’s father witnessed a famous massacre of civilians. Phillips, author of the “classic” 1984 novel Machine Dreams, “knows her characters so intimately and tackles their stories with such ferocity” that Lark and Termite instead “ascends into the higher, more rarefied altitudes of fable.” Much of the novel has been patterned after William Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury, said Lorraine Adams in Bookforum. Yet by giving Lark and other female characters the story’s dominant voices, Phillips “reinvigorates and transforms” her borrowed infrastructure. In essence, she has rediscovered and memorialized “the nobility of Appalachia, of Korean refugees, of the least of us.”