Meredith Sue Willis's

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Lark and Termite

by Jayne Anne Phillips

(as discussed by members of the
Almost Heaven White-Water Outfitters and Book Club)


(An electronic book club discussed Jayne Anne Phillips' Lark and Termite this summer. Take a look at what they had to say. Names have been changed for creative expression!)



Liz: A friend told me reading this book was like swimming underwater, and I think that is apt. I don't like fiction with multiple narrators and don't care for magical realism.


Jem: I like the triple narratives. One story told from different perspectives has always captured me.


Beebee: Some motifs I see in the book are— Tunnels. Dark. Damp. Places of shelter. Habitat of ghosts.


Liz: Do tunnels represent the secrets?


Jem: The parentage of Lark is at first a secret, as is the sexual play of Lark and Solly and the affair of Charlie and Nonie and the ownership of the Florida house. A final secret is the flood "accident" with Gladdy.


Liz: Motifs—Water - its destructive and healing powers, and its ability to wash away the past (sins?); communication in all sorts of forms - touch, instinct, movements - especially between those who can't communicate with words, like the Korean girl and Bobby or Lark and Termite; the tug of relationships and the power they have to hold us sometimes against our will. The symbols of the tunnels and water are really strong in my mind.


Jem: The flood destroyed and revealed and made possible new beginnings.


Stevie: Related to ghosts is the mention of smoke, mist, veils, even the faint "blue ribbon" of plastic that Termite loves so much. And, yes, language— the failure of words and the importance of communicating. Linked to this motif is the commonality of the human condition of mortality and how war separates us from the realization of that common bond that should make us cling to and care for each other.


July: Silence and the unspoken dominate and emphasize the urgency of what IS spoken. I think this may come from Phillips' Scottish-Irish ancestry, in which it is dangerous to say what may be formed into event or truth...the immutability of what is put out there..."Sticks and stones are hard on bones; aimed with angry art, words can sting like anything but silence breaks the heart" (if I recall Dickinson half correctly).


Jem: This is not a motif but the cloth dripped in bloody water and offered to quench Robert's thirst called to my mind Jesus on the cross and the vinegar offered him. The color white also strikes me—the white stag (it appears to glow white), the white-haired and pale Mr. Stamble, and the white clothes in Korea may be symbolic.


Mac: On the question of motifs . . . Phillips replays the long gone parents in subtle nuances through the children and especially through Termite in flurries of sensory descriptive . . . also termites are something of a parasite and how many other characters surrounding Lark could be considered parasites . . . several I think . . . how many of these people are "sucking the life" from this girl?


July: Perhaps the destructive allusion to what kills us is the unspoken but known? the unuttered we know but withhold? the fear of what we can't express... how it governs us, haunts us? burrows at our core and begs to be noticed, but we misunderstand?


Jem: If there is a hero in the story, is it Lark? The white stag (it appears to glow white) and the white Stambles and the white clothes in Korea may be symbolic.


Liz: Lark does seem to be the heroine, and Termite is a positive figure but he is holding Lark back from a fuller life, isn't he?


Stevie: I also see Lark as the hero of the book. She does escape at last, as Lola hoped she would by naming her "Lark" so she could rise and fly away,


Liz: I've changed my mind on one subject: the hero. I think the real hero is Nonie. She's the glue that holds the family together, despite her sister's deceit, and Charlie's unfaithfulness. She's willing to take on raising both Lark and Termite while holding down a job, juggling Charlie and his mother's arguments, and his shaky business. That's heroism. Even Charlie gets good marks for providing for Lark in the end.


Jem: Maybe, thinking in terms of folklore, Nonie's the old crone; Lark's the maiden; and Termite's the innocent.


Stevie: Nonie has to be considered almost as important as Lark and Termite, even though she's not named in the title. She seems like a middle-ground figure, somewhere between the aspiring nature of Lark and the accepting nature of Termite.


Jem: Is the cat meant to be Lola reincarnated? How is the cat summoned? Is the orange cat meant to represent a watchful Lola? The ragged feral orange cat seems to only be interested in Termite. Lola's nickname was "Lola, the cat" and she had red hair. Does Mr. Stamble exist?


Cole: The orange, ragged cat with the high interest in Termite might be considered a spirit companion in folklore. The stag and other two deer on the island seem to be straight out of folklore too. The stag appears to glow in the light but only goes halfway across the river and turns back. Mr. Stamble may be seen as a counterpart or familiar standing in for the corporal.


Jem: I still don't know who brought the smaller wheelchair.


Whitewater rating for Lark and Termite: Class 4 – medium waves, maybe rocks, maybe a considerable drop, sharp maneuvers may be needed.




The largest unionized bookstore in America has a webstore at Powells Books. Some people prefer shopping online there to shopping at An alternative way to reach Powell's site and support the union is via Prices are the same but 10% of your purchase will go to support the union benefit fund.
For a discussion of Amazon and organized labor and small presses, see the comments of Jonathan Greene and others in Issues #97 and #98 .


If a book discussed in this newsletter has no source mentioned, don’t forget that you may be able to borrow it from your public library as either a hard copy or a digital copy. You may also buy or order from your local independent bookstore.
To buy books online, I often go first to Bookfinder or Alibris.   Bookfinder has a feature that tells you the book price WITH shipping and handling, so you can compare what you’re really going to have to pay.
A lot of people whose political instincts I respect prefer the unionized bricks-and-mortar bookstore Powells (see "About" above) that sells online at  
Another source for used and out-of-print books is All Book Stores at .
Also consider Paperback Book Swap, a low cost (postage only) way to get rid of your old books and get new ones by trading with other readers.

If you are using an electronic reader like Kindle, Nook, or Kobo, get free books at the Gutenberg Project  -- mostly classics, but other things as well. Libraries now lend e-books too!



Please send responses and suggestions directly to Meredith Sue Willis at Unless you instruct otherwise, your responses may be edited for length and published in this newsletter.

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