book: The Need (2019) by Helen Phillips


Whenever terms like “dazzlingly original” appear in the cover quotes for a mainstream novel — in this instance the quote’s from Emily St John Mandel — my first assumption is that the novelist has incorporated some stock premise from science fiction or fantasy, regarded as “dazzlingly original” because the quoter is unfamiliar with those literary fields.

On occasion, as with Martin Amis’s Time’s Arrow or (I gather, because I’ve yet to read it) Mandel’s own Station Eleven, this can be a productive exercise, because the writer does indeed go off and do something new and strange with the premise. Other examples? George Orwell’s 1984, Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, even Olaf Stapledon’s Sirius. There are plenty more. Harder to remember, for obvious reasons, are examples like P.D. James’s The Children of Men, where the novelist essentially reinvents the sciencefictional wheel. (That didn’t stop the mainstream critics praising James’s “originality,” natch; Amis, to his great credit, lambasted those who tried to do the same for Time’s Arrow, insisting to them that he’d nicked the premise from a lesser-known Philip K. Dick novel, Counter Clock World.)

Helen Phillips’s The Need falls, I’m delighted to say, into the category of Time’s Arrow and Sirius. It could certainly be categorized as science fiction, but its primary concerns are its own.

Molly and her fellow-paleobotanists are puzzled to find in their latest dig not just plant fossils that are hard to fit into the evolutionary tree but also artifacts of far more recent vintage. The usual assumption would be that these artifacts — a penny, a plastic toy soldier, a copy of the Bible, etc. — were contaminants, dropped into the Pit (as the dig is known, in a conscious or unconscious echo of Quatermass) by passers-by after excavations began, but there are peculiarities that defy such a glib explanation: the toy soldier has a monkey-like tail, for example, and in this printed Bible God is referred to throughout as “she.”

The leaking-out of the news about the artifacts has attracted much public attention to the site. Alas, some of that interest is, because of the Bible, from Christian fundamentalists, who feel threatened by the portrayal of the by-definition-genderless God as female . . .

Molly has two small children, Viv and baby Ben. One night while musician husband David is on tour abroad she hears a noise from the living room, and venturing in there she discovers an intruder wearing a highly realistic deer mask. In due course she learns the startling truth of the identity of that intruder, whom she both sympathizes/empathizes with and loathes as the latter attempts to take over her life, or as much of it as she can get . . .

Center-stage, with all of these dramas serving as backdrop, is Molly’s role as mother of her children, the miseries and ecstasies of which are described in what some might find excruciating detail. I didn’t myself find all the whining, the instantly acquired and forgotten food fads, the vomit, the infantile fascination for poop, the diaper changing, etc., too offputting (kinda nostalgic, really), although I did weary of the frequent sudden onsets of lactation, which seemed to me too often introduced as a way of gingering up the action at crucial moments, like those unexpected extra difficulties movie heroes encounter just as they’re sneaking up on the bad guys or reaching the laser-guarded bank vault. Hm. On second thoughts, I suppose this really isn’t unreasonable, because motherhood of small children is indeed a sort of Mission Impossible.

So what starts as both a thriller and a sciencefictional puzzle — the two strands are dealt with in alternate chapters of the book’s first part (of five) — becomes both a depiction of the travails of motherhood and a thriller of a nature other than we might have expected from the opening scenario. As such, the novel is rather hard to categorize — which is fine by me, you bet! I’m not sure I’d describe it as “dazzlingly original” but it’s certainly a deliciously odd duck, one that I think would reward most readers’ attention.

The ending is decidedly ambiguous — another thing that I like about the book. I’m pretty sure I know what happens, but your interpretation may for all I know be the right one . . .

The writing has great energy and flow, and the action rarely flags. Couple this with the fact that the chapters are very short — there are dozens of them in what’s not a long book — and the pages turn very quickly indeed: you could easily read The Need in a sitting, and might very well feel inclined to . . . even if that wasn’t your initial intention.

10 thoughts on “book: The Need (2019) by Helen Phillips

  1. I’m not a massive fan of ambiguity in my endings, though sometimes they can be perfect – a rarity. I’ll maybe dig out my copy of Time’s Arrow.

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