Though I’ve been struggling with traditional thrillers lately (recent exception: Lock Every Door), I have been loving many books marketed as thrillers that actually lean more toward psychologically suspenseful character studies (think: My Sister, the Serial Killer). Helen Phillips’s The Need certainly fits that bill.
In the novel, Molly is home with her two small children when she thinks she hears footsteps in another room- an intruder. While trying to keep her son and daughter quiet, she goes back and forth between believing someone is inside her house, and dismissing the notion; but eventually, intruder or no, she must emerge from her hiding place. What she finds is truly frightening, but as days pass afterward, the terror takes on another flavor as the initial danger subsides only for another disturbing possibility to take its place.
“The need to go home. The need to dispense with this intruder, this nightmare, and return to two small impeccable bodies. The excruciating need.”
It’s hard to describe the true nature of this novel without giving away its only real thrill: the answer to the question about whether there is an intruder, and who. Phillips sets it up as a surprise; though it happens early in the chronology of this tale, the narration switches back and forth (through a series of short chapters) between Molly’s awareness of the possible intruder in the present, and the events of the otherwise uneventful day leading up to it. While drawing out the suspense, this tactic also allows the reader to invest in the characters and understand their usual dynamic. The slowing of pace also serves as fair warning to the reader that The Need is a careful exploration rather than a string of shocking twists.
Ultimately, I would say that The Need is Dark Matter‘s fraternal twin. Where Blake Crouch (Dark Matter‘s author) uses science to ground his plot and excite his readers, and lets his characters fall flatly by the wayside, Phillips uses a very similar scientific/magical element, but lets that go largely unexplained while instead delving deeply into the complex moral and emotional consequences of it for her characters. Unfortunately, reading one means spoiling some of the other (I’m mentioning this potentially spoilery similarity only because I had to read 70 pages before realizing I might not have picked this book up if I had known- though I am grateful that I stuck with it). If you are planning to read both, I suggest reading Dark Matter first, for the sole reason that it uses as plot twists what The Need adopts as simple premise.
Though it is a rather quiet and quick read, The Need packs a lot of food for thought into its 250 pages. Thematically, it focuses on motherhood and family, and how traumatic events both do and don’t change a person at their core. It’s very much a book about identity. And while it may not be full of high-stakes plot twists, the first suggestion of an intruder creates a foundation for suspense that doesn’t let up until the last sentence has come and gone. Molly does fear for her life, despite other distractions, and rightfully so. Even her thoughts on motherhood tend toward the dark side:
“It had always seemed a bit deceitful to Molly, the way we put our children to bed in soft pajamas, give them milk, read them books, locate their stuffed creatures, tell them that all is well, there’s nothing to be scared of, as though sleep isn’t one-sixteenth of death. When they resist the prospect of sleep, of long dark lonely hours, intuiting that this is indeed a rehearsal for death, we murmur to them, we rub their backs, pretending they will never die.”
I found Phillips’s prose insightful and intelligent; though very little “happens” in the novel, it caught and held my attention so thoroughly that I sped through the book in two sittings. The tone is delightfully eerie, the main character wonderfully fleshed out and believable, the ties to paleobotany fascinating. Phillips gives the reader an astute look into just how far a mother’s instincts can drive her, as well as demonstrating how blurry the line between “self” and “mother” can become. The horror genre might be a better fit than thriller for this story, though I think neither quite hits the mark for how pervasively human it feels.
My reaction: 4 out of 5 stars. I actually just bumped my Dark Matter rating down from 5 to 4 stars as well; Phillips’s book made it clearer to me what Crouch’s had been lacking, just as reading Dark Matter before The Need made it hard for me to pretend that I didn’t already understand the implications of this situation the second time around. They’re a very interesting pair- for me, equally matched. I do want to try more of Phillips’s writing so that I can try again without an unexpected subject bias; I’m thinking of trying And Yet They Were Happy, but am open to other suggestions!
The Literary Elephant