As a mother of two young children, I was hesitant to pick up a book about a mother of two young children. Especially when this book is also about an intruder who breaks into the house while the mother is at home with her kids, and her husband is away on business. Have I mentioned my husband sometimes travels for business? No doubt you can see why I read the beginning of this book bracing for something awful to happen, cringing while I think of the terrible parallels it has with my own life. I managed to convince myself I was brave enough to read it; it’s fiction, and I have a home security system, so clearly I’m better prepared than the mom-protagonist. But then something REALLY strange happens…

The Need by Helen Phillips appears to be a psychological thriller at first glance, and when the blurb on the back of the book suggests that the intruder knows a little too much about the family, one’s mind will race off in all sorts of different directions. But truly, this book falls into the science-fiction category, and that’s all I’ll give you in terms of summary. There’s some pretty big twists, and if you’re a fan of Iain Reid, The Need will most definitely appeal to you. (thank you to Michelle, a goodreads contributor for that comparison, I wasn’t clever enough to make it on my own!).

The word ‘existential’ is thrown around quite a bit when people describe this book, but that word and its connotation makes me cringe for all the wrong reasons. I took a philosophy class in my first year of university and hated it, so when there’s any inkling of philosophical discussion in a book my eyes typically glaze over. Luckily this story is light on inner musings and heavy on plot, despite the ‘otherworld’ nature of the narrative. It’s a quick read as well, around 250 pages with very short chapters, so I raced through this one in a matter of hours. Despite the enviable page count, I’m still deciding whether or not I enjoyed this book. It wasn’t what I expected it to be, which disappointed me in some ways, but delighted me in others.

Author Helen Phillips,
photo by David Barry

I wouldn’t have picked up this book if I had known what the twist was going to be, but Molly, the central figure, was so darn relatable that I quickly became invested even when the supposed ‘psychological thriller’ took a sharp turn. Molly is an intelligent, caring, and attentive mother who is simply doing her best. She’s tired, REALLY tired, which of course introduces the possibility of an unreliable narrator into the mix. But Phillips doesn’t take the easy way out, ever, in this book. She twists our expectations around, surprising us with how easy it is to manipulate a seemingly simple story. Some reviewers have complained about how detailed the descriptions of Molly’s mundane child-rearing tasks become, but as a mother myself, I appreciate reading these things because it reminds me that I’m not alone. It may seem inconsequential to those who have left that stage of parenting, or never entered it, but when you’re in it like I am, it’s comforting and strangely compelling to read about. Molly’s ever-changing physical and emotional reactions to her children probably seem intense to many, but again, they rang true for me. One minute we want to squeeze our kids tight because we’re reminded of how fleeting their childhood is, the next we want to scream with frustration at how sick we are of cleaning up the cheerios they threw on the floor. This roller coaster of reactions is so realistic, it drew me into the writing even when everything else seemed to be spinning out of control.

I realize this review may come across as quite polarizing; a book about motherhood will either appeal or repel most readers, but I’m hoping that if you approach this novel with an open mind, you’ll be happy you did. As a book reviewer I find myself disappointed with how predictable so many books are right now, publishers are eager to jump on the next best-selling bandwagon when trends emerge, but every once in awhile a book like The Need will come along and surprise you; it’s up to you whether or not you’re ready for it.

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