When I was pregnant with my second child, a slightly bored obstetrician on rotation examining me mused, “When a woman is carrying a baby, she’s not really completely human anymore. She’s something other, a new creature.”
I haven’t seen an accurate representation of that idea — the otherhood of motherhood — until reading Helen Phillips’s novel “The Need,” in which an overstressed archaeologist and mother of two named Molly has an encounter in her living room with an intruder wearing a papier-mache deer head.
The face beneath the mask is part of the novel’s mystery, though clues to that person’s identity arise during Molly’s latest dig at work where she’s been finding strange objects: a toy soldier with a monkey’s tail, a Bible in which God is referred to as “She.” Are the items pranks, evidence of an unknown civilization or something else?
Molly has no time to consider their provenance, because every waking moment not spent at work is spent with 4-year-old Viv and baby Ben, whom she’s still breast-feeding. Phillips deftly conveys the physicality of parenting small children: “She would come through the doorway and step into her alternate life, the secret animal life where she sliced apples and thawed peas and wiped little butts and let her body be drained again and again and refilled again and again.” Phillips also conveys the various levels of terror Molly feels: Who’s in the house, and where are the children? And — a nod to fellow parents — when will she get a moment’s rest?
That’s not meant to diminish Molly’s fear. It’s just one way a book so smart and brave about motherhood can also be very funny; a child’s wail can unnerve you to your core, even if the child is merely sad about a blue marker being dropped into the toilet. The slapstick segues seamlessly into visceral moments in which Molly relishes her children’s corporeal selves: “There it was: the bliss, the halo, the guilt at her richness. The ecstasy of the ordinary. Two, alive. This freshly peeled piece of the universe nuzzling into her.”
Molly’s struggle to remain her full self while giving so much of herself away is electrifying. Phillips keeps chapters fast, setting scenes but never allowing the threads, or arresting props (there’s a fish costume, as well as that deer head), to hang around too long. Mothers will recognize so much in this fresh novel — but they aren’t the only ones who should read it. Phillips has found a way to make these experiences universal, acknowledging the importance of the other — the creature without whom none of us would exist.
Bethanne Patrick is the editor, most recently, of “The Books That Changed My Life: Reflections by 100 Authors, Actors, Musicians and Other Remarkable People.”
By Helen Phillips
Simon & Schuster. 272 pp. $26