Paula Cocozza has written a strange but compelling novel about relationships. In How to Be Human, she questions where the lines lie between sanity and obsession, love and infatuation, delusion and self-awareness. Beneath the surface of our intellect, sophistication and technology, we are still animals.
Mary lives alone in a house in East London which backs onto woods, land which other neighbours complain is a unpalatable wilderness of weeds, rubbish and foxes. To Mary, it is the countryside. One day she sees a fox in her garden and believes he has visited her, that the gifts he leaves her are his way of communicating with her. She interprets his movements and snuffles as communication to her, and so validates her belief he understands her as no-one else does. As her relationship with the fox grows, her interactions with other people – her ex-boyfriend Mark, her neighbours Eric and Michelle, her mother, her boss – begin to disintegrate. At the beginning she has some semblance that her friendship with the fox is not usual but she persuades herself that animal specialists do talk to animals so she is not alone in doing this. It is other people who do not understand him. She experiments with different names for the fox – Red, Sunset – but finally abandons this attempt to humanize him.
This is a strange novel, part-psychological thriller, part-study of how wild and domesticated live side-by-side, part-portrayal of emotional disturbance [Mary’s breakdown and Michelle’s post-natal depression]. It is a portrayal of Mary’s two relationships, both controlling, both involving elements of stalking, both where one partner overwhelms the other with claustrophobic caring. Except one relationship is between a man and a woman, the other between a woman and a fox. Events are told mostly from Mary’s point of view and partly from the fox’s, though I found the latter unsatisfactory, stilted and romanticized. Significantly, the fox’s viewpoint disappears towards the end. Some passages of description were too long for me, too indulgent of Mary’s inner world, pushing the boundaries of her madness into psychotic episodes, pushing the boundaries of veracity. It is a strange, unsettling novel, like nothing else I have read. The slow descent of Mary into her fox world is at first believable while being weird but gets stranger as the story progresses. The story did take a while to get going, I almost abandoned it twice. It is a long time before the first line – ‘There was a baby on the back step’ – is explained, so long that its significance is muted and not what I first expected it to be.
‘How to be Human’ by Paula Cocozza [UK: Hutchinson] Buy now
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