Phillips (English/Rutgers-Newark; MotherKind, 2000, etc.) divides her novel between July 1950, when a young soldier in the Korean War dreams about his unborn son, and July 1959, when that son, an orphaned hydrocephalic nine-year-old, is being raised by his older half sister and their aunt in West Virginia.
Basically blind, his language limited to the repetition of other people’s sentence endings, Termite is severely mentally and physically disabled, but Phillips gives him an active, if unconvincing inner life based on his sensitive hearing. Termite’s 17-year-old half sister Lark devotes herself to his care, a devotion based not on a sense of duty but on pure love. Raised by her Aunt Nonie, Lark has no memory of her mother Lola and no idea that her father is Charlie, who runs the restaurant where Nonie works. Years ago Nonie and Charlie were lovers. Then Nonie left for Atlanta. Charlie brought Lola to live with Nonie after their mother’s death and the three fell into a convoluted lovers’ triangle. Charlie moved back home, Lola had Charlie’s baby, Nonie moved home and, when Lark was three, Lola sent her to Nonie. Charlie and Nonie became lovers again but never married. Lola became a nightclub singer. She found unexpected happiness with a young clarinetist, Bobby Leavitt. They married and she was pregnant before he shipped overseas. Although Phillips returns repeatedly to the tunnel where Corporal Leavitt finds himself trapped trying to save a Korean girl and her brother from friendly fire, the novel’s heart lies with Lark. Phillips is not afraid of symbolism. Lark often carries Termite into a nearby tunnel. A mysterious ghostly, perhaps Christ-like young man appears bearing gifts and then disappears. A flood roars through town causing destruction and revealing hidden truths.
As usual Phillips writes up a storm (this time literally), but without a convincing story, readers may find themselves sinking into a marsh of sensory overload.