Guardian feature writer Paula Cocozza’s debut novel, How to be Human, tells an intriguing tale about sanity and safety, obsession and delusion.
When Mary, our protagonist, arrives home one day, she finds a fox sprawled elegantly on her lawn. Despite this air of nonchalance, he poses a challenge, ‘his very presence […] seemed to dispute something. Her right to be there. The supremacy of humans.’ The fox seemingly winks at her under the daylight, and Mary is convinced ‘he had opened up a line of communication between them.’
In an increasingly unsettling, but oddly fascinating tale, Cocozza details the impact of the fox’s presence in Mary’s life. Her ex-boyfriend hovers in the periphery, her career failed to take off, she had never wanted children and the next-door neighbour recently had a baby. In a way, she is struggling to find her way in the world: ‘the magazines were full of stories of women choosing between their career and their maternal instincts. But what if you had neither?’
The fox appears to offer a different world, a world away from the expectations of society and into wild life, ‘an island of wilderness in the inner city.’ Conflict runs through the novel, a kind of territorial clash between the city and wildlife, inner and outer, humans and animals. Yet what is particularly fascinating is not only do we hear Mary’s thoughts on the world and the humans that surround her, but readers also get a glimpse into the fox’s thoughts.
Poetic and stylistic, at times comedic and curious, these descriptions are uncanny, defamiliarizing, vivid: ‘His land was growing. He was stretching out the edges into all these fenced human runs. Blackberries soon. But blackberries were such a sad thought.’ The fox is almost human. But as the fox views the world in increasingly human terms, Mary, on the other hand, starts to see the world around her, her neighbours, her house, in increasingly animalistic terms. In a novel that explores the thin line between curiosity and obsession, city and wildlife, and about finding a place in the world, perhaps this inversion of viewpoints is oddly fitting. The boundaries between what is real and what is imagined begins to blur.
It will raise many questions, you will see through different eyes, and in the shifting, fox-like narrative you will find many surprises. In this highly inventive and experimental novel, and through Cocozza’s uncanny, unsettling but also curious and fascinating style, we are shown a world turned upside-down.
How to be Human was published by Hutchinson on 6 April 2017