Helen Phillips’ new novel “The Need” opens on a mother in peril, “crouched in front of the mirror in the dark, clinging to them. The baby in her right arm, the child in her left.”
“There were footsteps in the other room.”
But were there footsteps? Did she mishear? Is she going crazy? Since having children, paleobotanist Molly has come to distrust her senses, as her anxiety can manifest a baby’s cry from the sound of a passing ambulance.
Molly and her husband David, a musician, have two kids: 4-year-old Viv and baby Ben. Thanks to a distant gig, David isn’t home when the (possibly real) intruder appears, and her kids are too young to understand what’s happening. She’s on her own with her unreliable instincts. Each time she begins to convince herself that the intruder is a trick of perception, there’s another piece of evidence: her daughter’s scream in the other room, the sight of a chest lid shutting gently.
In her gorgeous 2015 debut novel “The Beautiful Bureaucrat,” Phillips explored the modern workplace and marriage through an eerie speculative fable. Her latest genre-bending work invokes similar sci-fi and horror tropes — eyes watching from the bushes, things that go bump in the night, parallel universes, ominous doppelgängers, portentous otherworldly objects — to unravel the tensions that define motherhood in America today. “The Need” gives us a woman left alone with her two children to face a haunting that embodies her own worst fears and darkest impulses, revealing modern motherhood as a state of crushing demands and extremes.
Plagued by self-doubt and fear, Molly at last confronts an intruder in her living room: a slim figure, dressed in black, wearing an over-the-head papier-mâché deer mask her husband made as a birthday gift for her. This is no burglar; this person wants something from Molly and her family, but not money or even blood.
As Molly succumbs to the intruder’s demands, her sanity and the bounds of reality come ever more into question. Is this truly a visitor from another dimension, or is she losing her grip? Phillips draws the reader into this state of confusion, not allowing the audience to stand apart in judgment with all the facts. She lulls us into certainty of safety, then startles us with another suspicious sign. Molly isn’t the only one who doesn’t know which narrative to trust.
“The Need” reckons less with the broader questions of the multiverse as a scientific possibility than with the intimate yet unspeakably immense questions of motherhood as a human experience. By immersing readers in this state of anxious suspense, Phillips makes the psychic and physical toll of maternity visceral. The novel dramatizes the quotidian demands of motherhood: the collision of adult isolation and overwhelming intimacy with needy kids, the inescapable conflict of career demands and caring for children, the sacrifice of bodily independence, and the rousing of protective urges that could easily lead to violence.
Phillips writes about parenthood without sanctimony or air-brushing. To begin with, Molly is isolated in a nuclear family home with her husband often absent. Her only help is Erika, the energetic 23-year-old nanny who watches the kids while Molly is at work. As the novel opens, Molly repeatedly remembers how Erika had shared her plans for after work that day. “A Friday night beer with my girls,” Erika had told her. “How exotic, she thought distantly.” Despite her full-time job, Molly’s life is structured around providing round-the-clock care to her offspring, with no extended family or close community to spell her for a beer. There are no “my girls” visible in Molly’s life, just children and husband and work colleagues. No wonder the classic family home — 2.5 kids and a mom and dad — is often the idyllic-seeming scene upon which a horror movie opens: It poses as warmth and togetherness, but actually represents a unit cut off from a broader community, vulnerable to delusions and violent threats.
Her maternal instincts are difficult to separate from insanity.
But the great terrors of motherhood, amplified as they may be by this isolation, come from within. Molly has been physically altered by pregnancy and nursing, her body now host to urges and substances that exist for her children, not for herself. The milk comes down according to its own schedule and whims, seemingly immune to her will. At work, in a lightly refurbished gas station bathroom designated for her pumping needs, she sits down to extract her son’s food: “She waited impatiently for the milk to flow. But the more impatient you were, the more the milk resisted the pump.” She feels alien in her body in ways she can’t quite nail down. She’s plagued by surges of disorientation, tricks of the senses that “for a millisecond, caused reality to shimmer or waver or disintegrate slightly.” She feels danger where she once would have been calm. Her maternal instincts are difficult to separate from insanity, or some sort of physical misalignment.
Her job is no respite these days, either. Molly works at a local excavation site, sifting through the pit’s soil for fossilized plant specimens and giving tours to curious visitors. Lately, though, she’s been finding other things in the earth, inexplicable things: an Altoid tin in an unusual size and shape, a Bible using female pronouns to refer to God. Her colleagues dismiss them as pranks, but Molly is fascinated. After she carelessly mentions them to a tour group, the news gets out, and it turns out to be enormously controversial — especially to religious zealots displeased by the blasphemous Bible. People angered by the artifacts have begun to turn up for tours and send hate mail.
Phillips handles the exhausted question of work-life balance and maternal guilt with a subtle but devastating touch. Molly is not the sort of woman to openly question whether she should leave her children to return to work; she’s devoted to her job, and can happily lose long hours chipping away at specimens in the pit. The tension, however, between working away from her kids and caring for them has a life of its own. It’s her passion for her odd findings in the earth that stirs up death threats, that infuses her family’s life with a murky fearful atmosphere. Is Molly a source of peril to herself and her family? Even if so, what other option does she realistically have? To be a parent is to be your child’s greatest protection from a chaotic world, but also the most immediate threat to them.
Motherhood, as painted in “The Need,” is not a Precious Moments tableau or a pulpy Lifetime movie. Phillips deftly twists the archetype of the imperiled mother guarding her babies from an outside menace to tease apart the real threats facing most mothers: The structural forces separating them from support yet demanding ever-more attentive parenting, the confusing and often misunderstood changes to their own minds and bodies.
“The Need” opens with the taut terror of a suspense novel, but its destination is not the twist reveal or the explosive showdown — it’s an exquisitely tender meditation on motherhood’s joys and comorbid torments.
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