Helen Phillips’s disconcerting new novel starts on a note of thrillerish urgency. Molly, at home alone with her small children, hears footsteps in the other room. She clasps them to her, though she needs to move away from them if she is to defend them. Ben, the baby, is too young to feel a sense of emergency, but Viv, at three, is old enough both to co-operate and to do the opposite of what she’s told. Even when she follows instructions, success isn’t guaranteed. Asked to bring the bat from the closet – Molly means the baseball bat – she returns bearing a soft toy with leathery wings.
Molly’s confrontation with the intruder is narrated in short sections that alternate with equally short sections, flashing back a matter of hours to her day at work, where similarly unrelaxing things have been happening. She works at ‘the Pit’, a fossil quarry next to a derelict filling station that has been turning up unclassifiable palaeobotanical specimens for years and has recently, as if on a whim, started yielding cultural artefacts that are no easier to contextualise than the fossils themselves. A Coca-Cola bottle using an unfamiliar font, an old Bible with a consistent change of pronoun. The tone throughout is matter-of-fact, but the word ‘pit’ has uncomfortable associations with, for instance, the Hellmouth beneath Sunnydale in Buffy the Vampire Slayer, though the quarry is also described as a ‘seam’, plausibly a place where interdimensional threads might get a little frayed.
On top of the home invasion set-up and the understated sci-fi premise, there are scattered hints of horror movie, such as the unspeaking person at Viv’s birthday party, who wears an elaborate costume in keeping with the undersea theme but may not be on the guest list. The two timeframes, only marginally out of phase, fold smoothly into each other when the narrative of Molly’s work day catches up with her evening panic and its aftermath. At this point Phillips starts to hold back the momentum. It would be an exaggeration to say that the genre elements function as a booster rocket to manoeuvre the novel into the right narrative orbit, then drop away, but the genre thrusters definitely reduce in intensity. In the uneasy silence that follows, the subject of the book is revealed as the physical and existential experience of motherhood, examined with an attentive realism despite the fantastic elements in the background, namely the existence of a mirror mother to Molly’s children, both a potential usurper, even a succubus, with a ‘permanent raw greediness’ in her eyes, and a victim of circumstance with a valid claim to sharing something whose sharing is a contradiction in terms.
Molly can never quite leave her children behind. Even at work, often in the middle of a charged conversation (emotion acts as a trigger), she can be made aware of her body’s changed state, its attunement to an absent mouth. ‘That slight ache or buzz, valves pressured into opening, the simultaneous relief and frustration, her bra damp in two focused spots. Reminder: Mother. Reminder: Animal.’ The presence of a word in a novel’s title has an invisibly italicising effect on its appearances in the text, but though Molly’s need for her children is clear enough, as well as her need of their need for her, the occurrence of the word itself is tightly controlled on the page. One usage, though, is oddly pitched, part of Molly’s memory of weekend mornings when all four of them – including her husband, David, who is absent through work for most of the novel – would lie together on the big bed: ‘Every single other thing – from the exhaustion of the week to evolution itself – is in the interest of this. This pure lack of desire. The need for absolutely nothing more than this.’ This is either the opposite of a need, since nothing is being desired, or one in a special category of unappeasability, continuing to be experienced as a need even while it is being fully satisfied.
The family group as the goal of evolution – that’s to give it star billing. More often in the book motherhood is portrayed as a compulsive state freely chosen. Molly feels the urge to correct Viv, when she says she wants to get older to ‘be a mommy’, pointing out that she should want to be ‘a scientist or artist or president as well as a mother’. Motherhood by this understanding has shed the long-standing association with sacrifice that contributed to its aura of sanctity. It’s no longer an option that shuts off all or most of the others.
This notion of modern motherhood is one made possible by an ideal set of circumstances. Molly has a stimulating job and the services of a nanny, Erika, 23, buoyant and brave, someone with a real but properly uncompeting love of the children in her care. David, when he’s home, doesn’t regard maleness as disqualifying him from an equal share of chores and caring, even if he does have a knack for sleeping on when the children make demands at night. Dreading his absence – ‘so many meals … so many diapers, so many tantrums between now and next Saturday’ – she misses the intimacy, but also ‘his utility to her, to the home, another pair of hands to clean up, another pair of arms to hold a kid’.
Need, even the ‘excruciating need’ to return to two impeccable bodies, doesn’t rule out ambivalence, the times when her life seems to amount only to ‘ushering a pair of digestive tracts through each day’. There’s an element of being frightened of her children, as well as frightened for them. They belong to another order of being, whether they resemble ‘angels or aliens’. They fill her house with a force out of all proportion to their size. Entering the children’s room at night carries a frisson, as if she was ‘trespassing in a greenhouse containing rare tomatoes, tomatoes grown from her own flesh. She listened to the tomatoes breathe. Her awe tinged with horror, disbelief, humidity.’ Humidity rather than humility is a nice sly touch, keeping the spotlight on the physical otherness of young children. This emphasis on children’s eeriness seems at odds with the book’s main mechanism, which explores the uncanniness of motherhood, but the themes nest neatly enough. Along with the double nature of the children, Ben so powerless yet so lordly, using a single gesture, a wave of the hand, to send every possible message (‘yes, no, hello, goodbye, bring it, take it away’) and Viv unrecognisable during a tantrum (‘The beast within fought its way out while the mother watched in awe’), goes the mother’s own double nature, almost moment by moment ‘maddened/melted, maddened/melted, maddened/melted’ by her children.
The absence of Molly’s ‘wondrous’ husband is acknowledged, but there’s a whole web of context whose absence, no less stark, isn’t remarked on. Viv and Ben seem to have no grandmother, uncle or cousin in their lives. True, they have a great-aunt who puts in a brief appearance when she returns from a trip, but the fact that she has bought a single present for them to share (‘Don’t forget to tell them I got them a dodo’), though Viv has had a birthday in her absence, hardly suggests a close connection. In herself she’s a generic old lady, evoked largely by her possessions: a tarnished copper kettle, her tissue-holder shaped like a hen. There are usually more atoms whizzing around, even in what we’re used to calling the nuclear family. Collectively, Phillips’s choices have the effect of subtracting any social component from motherhood. The parents of the children at Viv’s party are an undifferentiated mass: ‘In the living room the adults drank; the wizened parents of four-year-olds knew always to bring along a six-pack to these infernal birthday parties.’ That ‘wizened’ is odd, suggesting that childrearing accelerates the ageing process, a long transfusion that drains the donor. The forced jollity of these people grates on Molly, though she knows that she behaves the same way when she’s the guest. Other people’s children are agents of entropy, evoked only by their unlovely aftermath, the strawberries ‘dismembered by imprecise baby teeth, smears of red on the walls and floors, scattered bits of green too small to be picked up with adult fingers’. When one of the mothers asks a question about sibling jealousy over breastfeeding, she’s referred to only as ‘Dorothy’s mother’, though Dorothy herself isn’t singled out. It’s as if motherhood vaporised individuality, even if this isn’t Molly’s sense of things.
There’s no sense that Molly and her husband belong to a larger group, whether a cohort, a generation, or a set of traditions. No anxious consultation of Mumsnet for her, no submission to the tyranny of the How To bookshelf. There seems to be no template being followed or rejected, and there are certainly no memories of childhood. You couldn’t learn from The Need that a mother is someone who had a mother herself, and is likely to have been affected by the experience. Phillips’s own acknowledgments page testifies against her vision of motherhood as embattled isolation, thanking ten family members from three generations for help, as well as her daughter and son. Some of the family’s assistance was technical – her mother-in-law offered plot advice, her brother was available for consultation on the workings of science-fiction portals – but some comes under the heading of encouragement or ‘grandparent duty’, presumably unpaid childcare.
The Need is an examination of the dark side of the best-case scenario, the necessary lamination of joy with fear, adoration with resentment and boredom, all the contradictions that attend the unfolding of an identity predicated on the loss of identity. A mother’s boundaries are expected to disappear. She forfeits the right to withhold herself. Still, the couple’s sex life hasn’t been unduly disrupted by parenthood, though Molly is grateful for the unrestricted exchanges that preceded it, giving her the sense of a store of sensual satisfaction securely banked. They still have access to proper adult kisses as well as the ‘tame, raisin pecks’ of mummy and daddy. It’s late in the book before the decision to have children is referred to – it was David who said ‘What the hell, let’s have a kid’ on the day of a car accident that could have hurt people, although it hadn’t. In this case, starting a family wasn’t an accident or a cold piece of life scheduling but a shared moment of impulse, a vote for life after a brush with death.
The idea of interdimensionality seems to bleed from the genre set-up into other parts of the book, with the effect of dispelling any underlying tension. Molly, apparently, has always considered orgasm proof of an alternate state of being, ‘evidence that the state in which we spend most of our time is merely one possibility’. Sleeplessness is a drug, but so is sleep, ‘a doorway to another world’. Giving birth turns out to be a seam between realities: during labour Molly inhabited ‘the body of a great female elk bellowing on a grassy hilltop’. Time was also reconfigured. Seven hours passed between 18.23 and 18.24, then three minutes later it was midnight. Children too have an interdimensional aspect. Molly can tell immediately when Ben falls asleep on her lap because his body takes on a ‘god-weight, a sudden and exceptional heaviness that pressed her into the rocking chair’. His sleep isn’t mere loss of consciousness but a more complex change of state.
Overt genre elements, even something as unambiguously Gothic as a disembodied heartbeat, more or less announce themselves as false alarms. That episode has no more than a mildly disorienting function: it makes no claim to alarm or thrill. There will be no entering into Edgar Allan Poe territory. It wouldn’t be fair to say that Phillips has painted herself into a corner by starting with a set of misleading signals – truer to say that she has rationed the amount of paint available to be used, after the first few lurid splashes. If the ending of the book works satisfactorily, it’s more because of the goodwill built up over time (as is the case with, say, Groundhog Day) than because the situation has been resolved on its own terms.
Despite Stephen Dedalus’s assertion in Ulysses that ‘amor matris, subjective and objective genitive, may be the only true thing in life,’ motherhood isn’t a particularly common central subject for treatment in fiction. Nevertheless Phillips is working within a tradition, one starting point for which might be Enid Bagnold’s 1938 novel The Squire, which describes the ‘strange, concentrated life, that no man knows, shared with the cat in the stable and the bitch in the straw of the kennel, but lit with the questions of the marvelling human brain’. Bagnold’s book’s most heightened passage is a description of labour, as a pain to be tuned into rather than fought, a flame that does not burn. There isn’t a lot of plot in The Squire, but plot is only one form of the sense of necessity required to provide a book with a power supply, and there’s nothing much more charged with necessity than a full-term baby’s passage through the birth canal.
The unnamed heroine, in her forties and already the mother of four children, thinks of herself as ‘the squire’ because her husband is absent in India, and his functions as head of the household devolve onto her. It’s a well-staffed household in a village by the sea. The last thing she does before she goes into labour is to clear her desk, putting her papers in order, and signing cheque after cheque. (Readers who want an exploration of motherhood degree zero, without any social or personal support – and without gestation – might try Carola Dibbell’s astonishing dystopian novel, published in 2015, The Only Ones.) The squire’s cook is disgusted and made resentful by the imminent birth (‘I can tend a death but I’ve no nerve for birth’) and hands in her notice, something her temporary replacement puts down, in a conversation below stairs, to the nearness of her ‘change’. ‘Most cooks are at their change,’ she says. ‘I believe in a bit of sex myself. Keeps you steady.’ The squire herself has come to feel that ‘acts of love’ resemble one another, leaving no lasting impression: ‘Love in the past was nothing as she watched her children.’ She prefers her children’s talk in all its freshness to any conversation she could hope to have with contemporaries.
With her husband away (though there’s a hint that he’s less than dominant even when present) the squire’s most equal relationship is with the midwife, whom she regards as a friend. The midwife thinks of the two of them as having ‘worked together’ on the four previous births: a midwife’s role might seem essentially a spectator’s, for all her skill, but this one is allowed her own ‘inner trembling of ecstasy’. The leather bag she carries has value as a badge of office in excess of anything it might contain. She is described as a nun, and the doctor who is also in attendance as a monk. The doctor may seem to be idle while the squire paces the garden, sitting in a deckchair reading the Times, but he is unobtrusively timing her contractions. The midwife in the book is a portrait of Ethel Raynham Smith, who attended Bagnold in her own labour, and to whom (along with Harold Waller, M.D.) the book is dedicated. Bagnold had learned some lessons in literary etiquette since National Velvet, when she used the family who owned the local butcher’s in Rottingdean as the model for Velvet Brown’s, giving offence not only because she hadn’t asked permission but also because she didn’t patronise the establishment, preferring to have her meat sent down from London.
Motherhood in Bagnold’s book is part of a wider world – in pregnancy she had ‘felt the walls of her life stretch and grow thin, the walls of her home, the village, the gardens, the flowers in the border flow into each other’. Her first postpartum impulse is to get up and move around, something that would nowadays be applauded rather than sedated out of her with a dose of morphine. According to the medical orthodoxy of the day, a woman should remain in bed for two weeks after giving birth, an interval that may be connected to the Anglican ritual that required the ‘churching’ of women after childbirth before they could take the sacrament. Her heroine’s enforced idleness over this postpartum period suits Bagnold well. She turns it into a voyage of introspection, a slow unagonised rite of passage.
It seemed to Bagnold that ‘if a man had a child and he was also a writer we should have heard a lot about it.’ She set out to make The Squire ‘exactly as objective as if a man had had a baby’, even if objectivity would not strike most readers as the keynote of a passage like this: ‘Behind the fold of the tablecloth, behind the sheath of skin, hanging head downwards between cliffs of bone, was the baby, its arms all but clasped about its neck, its face aslant upon its arms, hair painted upon its skull, closed, secret eyes, a diver poised in albumen, ancient and epic, shot with delicate spasms, as old as a Pharaoh in its tomb.’ The descriptions of breastfeeding come closer to satisfying this criterion, thanks to the scrupulousness of their notation. Bagnold took notes on motherhood from the time of her first baby’s birth in 1921, and in The Squire she carefully differentiates the stages of the newborn’s awareness. ‘He fed greedily at one breast, and as his mother passed him over her body in the darkness he snuffled in a passion of impatience, learning already that there was a second meal, seizing the nipple, choking, and sinking to hardworking silence.’ Even the use of the word ‘nipple’ was controversial in 1938; H.G. Wells reported that the book made him feel as though he’d been ‘thrown into a washing basket full of used nursery napkins’, though his tone seems closer to mock outrage than to the real thing.
The image of the squire’s baby falling asleep immediately after a feed with ‘his nose bent by the weight of the breast’ has a sharp tenderness. In fact, The Squire displays an offhand stylistic brilliance page after page: ‘The paddling bodies on the fringe of the incoming tide glittered as they moved. Old women’s pallid faces turned green in the strange aquarium sunlight, and the naked children shone like buttery metal.’ But a number of factors counted against its being considered a classic, among them Bagnold’s silly-sounding name, her comfortable circumstances (she married the chairman of Reuters) and the huge success of the screen version of her 1935 novel National Velvet, starring a 12-year-old Elizabeth Taylor. It sometimes seems that the enthronement of Virginia Woolf in the canon has entailed the demotion of a whole generation and a bit of women, not just Bagnold (born 1889) but Rose Macaulay (born 1881) and Sylvia Townsend Warner (born 1893). This seems especially unjust when one of them successfully addresses, as Bagnold does in The Squire, the area where Woolf is weakest – engagement with the body, unintellectualised sensual experience. With characteristic insouciance Bagnold outfaced the assumption, lingering nowadays in a phantom form, that addressing specifically female experience makes for minor art.