“Sweep everything under the rug for long enough, and you have to move right out of the house.” When she wrote this sentence 36 years ago, the late Rachel Ingalls — pioneer of speculative fiction that takes ordinary women’s lives as its point of departure — might have been describing “The Need.”
The fifth book of fiction from Helen Phillips centers on Molly, wife, mother, and paleobotanist. With her musician husband on a gig thousands of miles away, Molly has full responsibility for her children, 4-year-old Viv and 1-year-old Ben. Still nursing, she’s also working full time on an archaeological dig that has recently captured the attention of the media, resulting in enormous stress for the scientists involved.
So far, so ordinary. The many readers in similar circumstances will relate. We wonder: How can this juggling act be sustained? The answer, which the novel spins out in spine-bending suspense, is nothing like we expect.
“The Need” opens when Molly, attempting to put her lively children to bed, hears footsteps in the living room. Because she is always exhausted these days — prone to the visual and auditory hallucinations of the permanently sleep-deprived — she’s not sure the intruder is real. Taking no chances, though, she tries to protect Ben and Viv.
At this point the novel begins to alternate chapters between Molly’s attempts to foil the (alleged) intruder and her work the previous day at the dig, a fossil quarry adjacent to a defunct gas station. Weird things have been happening. Artifacts are turning up that are all a bit skewed: a Coca-Cola bottle with the logo backward; a toy soldier sporting a monkey’s tail; a Bible in which the pronoun referring to God is feminine. Visitors showing up for tours are strange and sometimes threatening.
Meanwhile, the intruder remains invisible but ever more present. This alternating structure, which replicates Molly’s juggling act, ratchets up the suspense — if a bit artificially. And in “The Need,” suspense is the name of the game. Or is it?
Between chills, readers will notice the pleasures of Phillips’s prose. Her style combines the sensibility of a poet with the forward drive of a thriller. (One might say she juggles the two.) Her sentences have a strong, flexible music evocative not only of the action in progress but the feelings that accompany it.
Its rhythm can be staccato, as during the whirlwind that is breakfast with children: “More yogurt. More jam. Spoon flipping onto floor. Mess! Wet washcloth. But this one reeks. So: another. Laundry, soon. Come here. Let me — Water, please. Wait, no, juice please. No juice. No juice?”
At other times it’s incantatory, a mounting drumbeat of dread, as when Ben is missing: “He was not in the kitchen. He was not in the bathroom. He was not in the bedroom. He was not under the bed. He was not in the closet. He was not in the hall closet. He was not among the blankets and pillows of his mother’s makeshift hallway bed. He was not in the other bedroom. He was not under the other bed. He was not in the other closet. He was not under the crib. He was not behind the door. He was not behind the other door.”
Phillips’s crystalline style vividly evokes her characters. She draws them so precisely that before we know it, we’re deep inside their lives. Here’s Molly making love with her husband, feeling “righteous, joyous... where you fall back down afterward and laugh together, smug, because now you’ve got something on the whole rest of the world.” Here’s Molly holding Ben, “his head an exact handful, weighty and light at the same time”. Here’s Ben, a “freshly peeled piece of the universe.” Here’s Viv, “on the toilet, asking for some paper and a blue marker and a gold marker or if not gold then yellow so she could draw while she tried to push the poop out.” Phillips’s clear-eyed generosity renders family life in all its beauty, its tedium, and its terrors.
At the end of the first quarter of the novel, the intruder appears at last. It rises up out of the children’s toy box, a dark floating figure with the head of a deer. From that point on, Phillips’s style, so dense with detail, serves to make the unreal real.
The resultant slowing of the novel’s pace — the price of such alchemy — makes it as much a meditation as a thriller. Molly is in fact forced to move out of the house — but what is it that’s been swept under the rug?
We’re no longer so sure that Molly, in her eternal maternal weariness, is hallucinating. What if, instead, an alternate reality actually exists? Will it engulf her? Will the terrible thing that happened in the alternate world happen for real? Or did it already happen, and was it swept under the rug? Is Molly already its victim?
Read this bewitching, fiercely original novel and find out.
Ann Harleman is on the faculty of Brown University. Her fifth book, “Tell Me, Signora,” will be out in January. Follow her on Twitter @annharleman_author.