By Helen Phillips
As opening chapters go, this one from “The Need” does not mess about: A mother crouches in the corner of a darkened bedroom, straining to listen, holding her small children close and willing them not to make a sound. Molly has heard footsteps in the next room. An intruder is moving around her house. “Her desperation for her children’s silence manifested as a suffocating force, the desire for a pillow, a pair of thick socks, anything she could shove into them to perfect their muteness and save their lives.” There are several threats here. The reader is immediately on edge, fearful not simply for Molly, but about her. Are we safe with her? Are her children?
“Another step. Hesitant, but undeniable. Or maybe not.”
In her other life Molly is a paleobotanist, a scholar specializing in plant fossils. Searching for clues and connections at the bottom of a 20-foot excavation pit, she keeps “pressing even farther into the earth, hoping that someday it would all fall into place. Nonsense converting, wondrously, to sense.” She excavates her emotional life in the same manner, layer by layer, and because she knows herself well, she doubts herself. Even as she cowers in the bedroom — trying to quiet baby Ben and Viv, her exuberant, chatty toddler; wishing her husband, David, weren’t on a plane bound for another continent — she suspects she might be imagining the whole thing. Attempting to orient herself in motherhood, Molly finds only “a cosmic precariousness.” All her certainties have been upended, the rumble underfoot signifying an earthquake rather than a garbage truck.
[ This book was one of our most anticipated titles of July. See the full list. ]
Molly has lived in this state of heightened anxiety since Viv’s birth, and Viv is about to turn 4, an event that will be marked with the usual festive junk: juice boxes, rainbow sprinkles, a piñata. But celebrations do not mean respite. At all times Molly is “acutely aware of the abyss, the potential injury flickering within each second.” Perhaps the surges of adrenaline and cortisol have warped her perceptions a little because her grasp on reality seems to be slipping, both at home and at work, where the pit has started to yield unlikely items (most notably a Bible with a curious misprint). David attributes her state of mind to sleep deprivation and dehydration. He may have a point. Possibly it’s more serious than that.
So Molly does not feel equipped to confront the intruder, but she does it anyway. This is when Helen Phillips’s novel begins to reveal itself, veering away from what looks initially like conventional suspense into something more speculative and philosophical with nods to both sci-fi and horror. (Its preoccupations as well as its frankness reminded me a little of another recent genre-busting exploration of motherhood: Diablo Cody’s marvelous 2018 film “Tully.”) Molly believes herself “immobilized by what-ifs,” but the what-ifs animate this novel, the narrative splitting and looping back on itself as it tries out parallel possibilities, various fantasies and nightmares.