The protagonist of Helen Phillips’ new novel, The Need, is Molly, a paleobotanist that’s exhausted. She’s home alone with her baby and toddler, while a business trip has her husband on another continent for the week.
Molly was already on edge after an incident at an excavation site by a defunct gas station, where she unearthed artifacts that should not exist –– not in the prehistoric layer of earth and plant fossils she extracted them from, not on her planet, and perhaps not even in her universe. And this is such a bad time for a home invasion.
In The Need, Phillips fashions an addictive thriller, pairing the highs and horrors of motherhood with the reality bending of science fiction. Her second novel and a follow up to her short story collection, Some Possible Solutions, The Need continues Phillips’s threading of speculative elements through what would normally be inescapably mundane.
Phillips crafts viscerally honest descriptions on the experience of being a biological mother, descriptions that will allow some readers to relate and be seen, while others might recoil, resentful of having the privilege of somewhat gender-specific blinders ripped off. When was the last time you read in a work of fiction what it feels like when your milk suddenly “comes down” in your breasts when you’re not able to pump? Or the fact that emotions can trigger the milk? Lactation is so common, so human, it ought to be all over literature. Phillips has the courage, or perhaps the honesty, to describe the physicality of the act.
Molly and the intruder play a game of cat and mouse with her children unknowingly caught in the middle. The intruder has devasting insight into her survival instincts. How would you defeat an adversary who knows where you live, how you think, and wants only what you hold most dear?
One of the most brilliant things about The Need is that Phillips knows that the most terrifying thing about parenting isn’t the human monsters that parents fear are living in their children’s lives. It’s the fact that in perilous situations, babies and toddlers are absolutely giddy to do what most likely could get them killed or grievously hurt. When the sound of footsteps downstairs traps Molly in a bedroom with her children, she tries desperately to keep her young, human chaos generators quiet, mouthing the order to hold still. Her daughter responds by tiptoeing “theatrically toward the bedroom door, which was open just a crack, and [grinning] back at her mother, the grin turned grimace by the eerie light of the streetlamp.”
Phillips frames the story with frequent cuts between discoveries Molly makes during the excavation, and the day she realizes her home has been breached by a stranger. The seamless cutting between timelines is slick at first. The flipping between the heart-stopping invasion day and the timeline of its origin story grows a bit tired over time, but it’s a small price to pay for a novel that keeps you wanting to turn the page.
The theme of identity permeates the novel. When Molly faces the mysterious invader, she is forced to reckon with her true self. She must face everything she has been up to that point, and what she could very well become before the day is done. At one point, she sees herself as “a woman trapped on her kitchen floor, the tiles tilting beneath her, a kaleidoscope of trillions of Mollies: Molly singing with perfect pitch, a Molly smoking a cigarette, a Molly tending a vegetable garden, a Molly in the middle of a car crash, a Molly failing to catch her baby as he falls off the bed, a Molly running shrieking into the ocean as her daughter gets pulled out by the undertow.
Much like the more naïve narrator of Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House, Molly constantly doubts her perceptions, even after having one of her worst suspicions confirmed. She’s compromised. The chronic lack of sleep, the relentless needs of her children –– she can barely function. Surely, she can’t trust the fear that something is terribly wrong worming through her gut. Crouching with her squirming baby in one arm, and her daughter bursting with energy in the other, Molly would endure anything to keep them safe from the intruder, yet she’s overwhelmed by her own inadequacy. Can she possibly be enough for them under these conditions? Was she ever enough?
By Helen Phillips
Simon & Schuster
Published July 9, 2019