How to Be Human by Paula Cocozza

Reviewed by Alice Farrant

At 35, Mary is single and living in the house she once shared with her partner. She goes to work only to be berated by her boss and comes home to the judgement of her neighbours. Then suddenly, in the midst of her urban depression a fox appears, and strange love story unfolds.

He had come to her garden and no one else’s. So he had chosen her, Mary, and he must have come for something.

Mary is single when we meet her, having broken with her long-term partner five months previously. She’s lost in singledom, leaving for work and coming home from work, she moves through her life like an automaton. Until a fox appears. As he slowly infiltrates her life – or perhaps she draws him in – she becomes someone different and begins to understand the life she can have beyond her her ex, Mark.

Every kindness he had ever said, every reassurance he had given, was re-cast in an instant as the cold means by which he tried to get what he wanted.

Mary was a neglected child, and as an adult she fell into a relationship with Mark that seemed caring and supportive. Yet, such was Mary’s longing to be loved and noticed, it hid  the fact that Mark was subtly isolating and controlling her.

Her neighbours don’t help, Michelle has postnatal depression, and fixates on Mary and her difference from the rest of them. Eric, her husband, is floundering, trying to keep up the appearance of a happy home that is crumbling from the inside. Michelle’s story was a slightly disappointing one, as her postnatal depression drives her breakdown in the same way Mark leaving sparked Mary’s. It would have been interesting to see postnatal depression explored with more depth.

It is Mary’s breakdown which dominates the book; at least, it felt like a breakdown. The relationship with the fox made me anxious, and at times disturbed. I wanted to protect Mary from herself. I am unsure if this is Cocozza’s intention, or whether it is my own anxiety seeping into the pages. Either way, it was this anxiety that drove me to devour the novel, and I imagine I will continue to ponder it for days. Mary actively seeks a relationship with the fox, attributes reason to his actions, and captures him in her effort to shut everyone else out. She anthropomorphised this wild animal.

How to be Human sprang from an interaction with a fox Cocozza actually had; while clearing an urban dumping ground behind her house (much like Mary and Michelle’s) Cocozza had found herself being watched by the urban animal. Inspired by the circumstances and the habit humans have of attributing meaning to the actions of animals, she came to write the novel.[1]

Afterwards, she rummaged in the upstairs cupboard and found a large sheet of cardboard which she tore into matts. She hoped he would use them as toilets, and planned to communicate this delicate matter to him when he woke.

Cleverly written, the prose intrigues you as the novel begins in the middle before finding its way to the beginning. Cocozza brings Mary to life with her writing, as Mary emerges from her break up haze to discovering herself – as the relationship with the fox pulls her to the wild.

Occasionally the fox takes centre stage, but his postmodern narration tended to pull me from the story rather than further into it. I didn’t need his voice or reasoning, for me his understanding of and liking of Mary could have remained a mystery without hurting the story. The fox’s voice does add an interesting edge to the plot, making the question of Mary’s mental stability that bit more unsure. Yet just as I felt I knew Mary and sympathised with her story, his thoughts appeared, and it displanted me – perhaps that was the point.

How to be Human is an interesting depiction of a life emerging from a self-imposed chrysalis. It has an air of The Portable Veblen about it; if you enjoyed that you will enjoy this.

[1] https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2017/mar/31/moment-that-changed-me-deciding-to-write-a-novel

You can read more by Alice at her blog, of Books, or find her on Twitter, @nomoreparades.

Paula Cocozza How to be Human, (Hutchinson: London, 2017). 978-1786330338 320pp., hardback.

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