2019 Reading Challenge

2019 Reading Challenge
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Book Review: The Need by Helen Phillips

Well, this one was…weird. Nearly entirely in a VERY good way, although I’m not sure how I feel about the end such as it is… I don’t mind an oblique story – or an oblique ending. But I DO like there to BE an ending – and in this case I’m not entirely sure I ever got the feeling that it ended so much as stopped.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. Before we can talk about the end and whether it satisfied or not we have to talk about the entirety of what came before it and that was, for the most part, brilliant.

This is self-described as a genre-buster, and it is certainly that. The blurb is (deliberately) vague about what is to come. As I started reading I quickly realized why – the off-kilter, what’s real, WTF nature of the story is a vast part of what makes it so fascinating. Had there been a genre or more descriptive blurb provided, much of that uncertainty would have been subsumed by presumptions and assumptions – and that would have wrecked the pure exhilarating joy of reading something that could have, almost literally, gone in any direction at any point… It was fascinating to see where my imagination too me – as much so as to see where Phillips actually took Molly.

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. Little do they know that behind our backs we keep our fingers crossed, and that our hearts too thump with anguish when we turn off our bedside lamps.

The book opens with footsteps in the house – but are they really there? Is Molly losing it? Is there something supernatural going on? Are the kids oddly prescient and just a little weird? Is Molly? What’s up with The Pit?
Is anyone who they seem? Is anyone ever? Who are the good guys? Who are the bad guys? Are there really distinctions? The questions are thick on the ground from the opening gambit and they only get thicker as the tale unfolds. It’s a marvelous way to tell an unusual and paranoia-inducing story that explores motherhood, fear, faith, love, and selfhood in ways that are novel and unusual and yet at times clarion-clear for all that…

I loved every minute of the ambiguity – right up until the end, which felt more like someone yelled “STOP!” at the author than I would have expected. Then again, in a book riddled with questions and precious few answers, maybe the fact that I expected something different tells me more about me as a reader than about the book itself. Why do I expect tidy resolution? Does life ever provide it, really? Just because most other books have, why should this one? Would a more traditional ending have even made sense here? My answers to these questions vary depending on when I consider them, and to me that’s yet another example of the exceptionally cool thing that Phillips has done with this one.

She sat in the parked car in the uncomfortable heat, immobilized by the what-ifs, the swiftness with which anything can change, the ever-present split second that is the difference between blood spilling or not, the difference between one future and another.

I am DEFINITELY in for more from Helen Phillips. The writing was magnificent and it left me tap-dancing among land mines from page to page – a feeling that is horrifying and death-defying and life-affirming in turns, and which makes for a brilliant reading experience. Add in the incredibly spot-on insights into motherhood and whether any of us really knows who we are when backed against a wall, and you have a fantastic book from a truly talented storyteller…

My review copy was provided by NetGalley – but I’d happily have paid, it was that unique and well done! The title releases in the U.S. on July 9, 2019.

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