Book Review: 'The Need'

Jul 22, 2019

As first sentences go, Helen Phillips’s new novel, “The Need,” packs a dramatic punch:

“She 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. . . .”

Our main character is Molly, a paleobotanist who recently has made some unusual finds at the bottom of an excavation pit near the quarry where she works. The children are her infant son, Ben, and her toddler, Viv. Molly’s husband is overseas on business. She’s alone, and overwhelmed, and sleep-deprived – and mysterious noises prompt worst-case scenarios.

The footsteps belong to someone or something I won’t reveal, because the power of this book is the way it unfolds like a fever dream, veering from traditional suspense into something more conceptual and thought-provoking.

Molly is a modern-day EveryMom, juggling work and family, pumping breast milk and planning ocean-themed birthday parties, always aware that her children are mortal and vulnerable. Their constant and primal needs tap into her deepest, darkest fears.

“Sometimes when she was watching her children she felt as though she were watching footage of wild animals in their natural habitat,” Phillips writes. “The life of the diaper. The life of the crushed Cheerio. The life of the soggy kiss. The life of the sticky floor.”

In “The Need,” Phillips meshes an otherworldly premise with raw human emotion – the anxiety that new mothers feel, the quest for solitude, the guilt of complaining, the panic of being both responsible and powerless. Rapid-fire chapters and superb writing make the novel so much more than your average suspense fare. This one will keep you up reading to find out what happens, and then pondering its deeper meaning.

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