The terror of the home invasion is perfectly vivid, and so is the disturbing prospect that we’re embedded in the consciousness of a woman who is dangerously split off from reality. Phillips can conjure pure nightmare in a single sentence as she narrates Molly’s thought processes: “Her desperation for her children’s silence manifested as a suffocating force, the desire for a pillow, a thick pair of socks, anything she could shove into them to perfect their muteness and save their lives.” It’s a line that chills not just through the violence it implies, but also because of the proximity of annihilation to love... Thrillingly disturbing, frighteningly insightful about motherhood and love, and spilling over with offhand invention, The Need is one of this year’s most necessary novels.
The Need is an examination of the dark side of the best-case scenario, the necessary lamination of joy with fear, adoration with resentment and boredom, all the contradictions that attend the unfolding of an identity predicated on the loss of identity. A mother’s boundaries are expected to disappear. She forfeits the right to withhold herself. Still, the couple’s sex life hasn’t been unduly disrupted by parenthood, though Molly is grateful for the unrestricted exchanges that preceded it, giving her the sense of a store of sensual satisfaction securely banked. They still have access to proper adult kisses as well as the ‘tame, raisin pecks’ of mummy and daddy. It’s late in the book before the decision to have children is referred to – it was David who said ‘What the hell, let’s have a kid’ on the day of a car accident that could have hurt people, although it hadn’t. In this case, starting a family wasn’t an accident or a cold piece of life scheduling but a shared moment of impulse, a vote for life after a brush with death.
To detail much more of Phillips’ plot would be to spoil this frenzied fever dream of a novel. Read it as a sci-fi thriller, or understand it instead as metaphorical; either way, it’s a page-turner. Phillips’ rendering of the experience of being caught up “in the cyclone of your children’s needs” is magnificent, and just as petrifyingly disorientating as any of the narrative’s more obviously chilling elements. This is a smart, sharp book that cuts to the heart of what it’s like to be a mother.
This is a difficult book to review because of the many surprises that lie in store for the reader. A steady flow of unease seeps off the pages. Suffice it to say that the intruder is not quite of this world. The Need’s true subject is motherhood, rendered here as a painful, visceral, almost impossibly tender undertaking. In contrast to this extreme normality, the supernatural elements tingle like bugs against the skin. In all, a grand achievement. The novel exists on that narrow borderline where strangeness merges with the mundane, and Phillips is both an explorer, and a brilliant chronicler of this murky realm.
The opening chapters of The Need are full of creepy portents and heart-stopping jump scares, but the author isn’t interested in terrifying her readers. On the contrary, empathy is a central theme here.
At the novel’s heart is Molly, a palaeobotanist whose recent archaeological discoveries have caused something of a stir — pointing as they do to an alternate reality.... The atmosphere is as close and taut as a thriller, but this is, in fact, both a highly original examination of grief and an extraordinarily vivid evocation of motherhood — the moments of terror and hilarity, the visceral burden of it, and the fleeting, but almost transcendent, joy.