How to Be Human is one of those books I was in two minds about before reading, and perhaps still am, although it comes with a spiffy endorsement from Hilary Mantel, enough to make a debut novelist’s heart sing. Set in Hackney, on a housing development edged by what estate agents would no doubt term ‘idyllic woodland’, it’s about Mary, who has kicked her fiancé out of their house, and the relationship that grows between her and one of the foxes whose territory the developers have colonised.
Mary opens the door one evening to find a baby on her back step, so quiet she’s not entirely sure it’s alive. It’s Flora, the daughter of her neighbours Michelle and Eric but rather than taking her home immediately, Mary brings her inside. Wind back four weeks and Mary is in the midst of a disciplinary process, constantly late to her dull job at the local university. She rarely sees anyone, hasn’t contacted friends since her fiancé Mark reluctantly left after one more row made abundantly clear their relationship was at an end, and knows few of her neighbours. She’s spotted a handsome fox who seems to be delivering presents to her – one day an old pair of boxers which look suspiciously like Mark’s, another a perfect egg, entirely empty – and becomes fond of him much to her neighbours’ annoyance. One day Eric asks her to babysit. Mary spends an enjoyable evening, poking around the strangely familiar yet entirely different counterpart to her own house and discovering the joys of holding a baby. A little restless, she takes a walk around the neighbourhood, bumping into Mark who she meets again at Eric and Michelle’s disastrous barbeque, and finds herself softening towards him. One night in Mary’s bed and Mark assumes he’s back in her life but he has a rival: Mary has begun to welcome the fox into her house.
Paula Cocozza explores themes of isolation and madness through Mary who begins to see her fox as her beloved, deftly weaving the failure of humans to understand their impact on the natural world through her story. Her writing is arresting – ’It was calming to emulate someone else’s sensible behaviour’; ‘She was still waiting for him to remove his things from her head’; ‘Somehow, having been seen with the baby made Mary feel more with the baby’ – all neatly convey Mary’s disordered state of mind. There’s a nice thread of humour running thorough it – the barbeque put me in mind of Abigail’s Party – which balances the claustrophobia of Mary’s decline. Michelle and Eric’s predilection for soft furnishings, wildly patterned with all manner of things from the natural world, contrast sharply and effectively with their hostility to the reality. Cocozza steers clear of the whimsy that might have crept into her portrayal of Mary’s feelings for her fox but the brief passages from the fox’s perspective jarred for me, leaving me wondering how I should interpret them. It’s a compelling novel, convincing in its depiction of a woman barely clinging to the shreds of her sanity and, on the whole, a success but I’m not quite as enthusiastic as Mantel, although you might prefer to trust her opinion over mine. Great jacket, though.
That’s it from me for a week or so. H and I are off to explore Split, inspired by Rick Stein’s Long Weekends TV series which brightened up our evenings last year. We’re hoping for a bit of sun, a spot of culture and some quiet reading.