This review was written by Erica Ferencik, author of The River at Night and Into the Jungle. Oprah chose The River at Night as a #1 Pick, calling the book “the page-turning novel you’ve been waiting for, a heart-pounding debut.” Miramax has recently optioned it for film. The New York Times Book Review called Into the Jungle, one woman’s terrifying journey of survival in the Bolivian Amazon, one of the “Summer of 2019’s Best Thrillers.”
A stranger wearing a deer’s head mask is in your living room. You are alone with your children in the adjoining bedroom.
Or, it’s all in your mind . . .
What do you do?
In other hands, this premise could fail miserably, but in The Need, Helen Phillips’s masterful take on modern suburban motherhood, the eerie dread never leaves us. She weaves clear and present danger through the last word of this lean, economical novel.
Molly, mother of young Viv and baby Ben, is a paleobotanist working at a site called the Pit. She’s half-crazed with exhaustion and anxiety from childcare, breastfeeding, a chronically traveling-for-work husband, and the discovery of some just-off-center finds at the Pit. There’s a Coke bottle with the script of the logo leaning left rather than right; a toy soldier sporting a monkey’s tail; and—most disturbing of all—a very odd Bible. Normal in every other way, it employs a “She” rather than the usual “He” throughout. Has Molly stumbled upon a parallel universe? Is someone trying to send some horrifying messages? Or is this just a bunch of random strangeness? It’s never clear. But along with the masked intruder, Molly’s inability to reconcile reality with her perceptions becomes the reader’s sinister problem as well.
Molly’s role as a mother is often blissful and always gorgeously described. Moving details about motherhood imbue nearly every moment of the novel, but the anxiety born from freighted responsibility saturates the prose as well. Her obligations are immediate, continual, and primal; her overtapped protective instincts equal only to her exhaustion.
Molly seems at once unhinged and at the same time connected to this frightful parallel universe, a place often glimpsed through the lens of a nightmare or—let’s face it—through the horrors of everyday life. Why is it impossible that your doppelgänger—your shadow self, someone who is you but not you, slightly better than you, more truthful, hard-working, more disciplined and kind—exists? Or just as likely, why doesn’t the person you’d rather not admit exists lurk somewhere inside: the burned-out, rageful, selfish, scheming, miserable one? In fact, aren’t both of those selves always there, in the corner of your eye in the mirror?
Okay, so it’s just me . . .
Juxtaposition of the barely absurd with the strikingly realistic are the watchwords of terror in The Need. Its familiar touches anchor the story to the mundane and therefore the believable. You can feel the wet nappies as much as the nonstop layers of dread. My hands were sweating as I read, my heart in my mouth from page one, as Phillips seduced me with this riveting and persistently creepy read.