Motherhood meets the sci-fi surreal in Helen Phillips' brilliant The Need
Every day, Molly gives all of herself to her two young children, toddler Ben and 4-year-old Viv. She wakes them and bathes them, nurses and wipes, cuts grapes, kisses scrapes, and worries that maybe she’s losing a little bit of her mind.
So it is a relief some days just to go to her job as a paleobotanist, though the objects coming out of the excavation pit she’s working on are increasingly strange: a Coca-Cola bottle in the wrong font; a toy soldier sprouting a monkey’s tail; a Bible with impossible new pronouns. And then one night, there is an intruder in her home, someone who seems to know much more than they should.
It’s not hard to see why high-wattage contemporaries like Lauren Groff and Emily St. John Mandel have lavished praise on The Need; what presents at first as a straightforward thriller is quickly revealed — in a series of short, sharp chapters — to be a sort of narrative nesting doll, a story infused with both essential home truths and a wild, almost unhinged sense of unreality.
Molly’s entire being is rooted in the simultaneous bliss and subjugation of motherhood, “every single thing in life shoved between the needs of a pair of people who weighed a cumulative 57 pounds.” Her love for them is as absolute as her exhaustion; her urge to protect them, when all of that is threatened, is primal.
Even as the book takes an unsettling turn toward the supernatural, a glassy Black Mirror shimmer on the plot, The Need never abandons its domesticity: the faraway husband calling in from a work trip, his concerned face blipping in and out on FaceTime; the barely contained chaos of a toddler’s birthday party, sticky fingers and smashed crumbs asserting their ordinary mess even in the midst of an existential crisis.
What Helen Phillips (The Beautiful Bureaucrat) builds from the first paragraphs is too clever, and moves too quickly, to be easily ground down in a review. Even the vaguely unfinished ending, less a full stop than a sort of pregnant pause, feels somehow right; a fitting coda to her spare, eerie marvel of novel, both beautifully familiar and profoundly strange. A–