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How to be Human – Paula Cocozza

By Hannah M Smith, on 23 April 2018

Longlisted for the Desmond Elliott Prize 2018

Paula Cocozza’s debut novel How to be Human is one that will remind you of multiple stories you’ve read in the past, while remaining wildly and uniquely different to all of them. Wild animals? Check. Love that borders on mania? Check. The city and nature butting up against each other in sharp contrast? Check.

The story follows Mary, a woman in her late twenties living in Hackney as she navigates the world after the breakdown of an intense and controlling relationship. Her life now, it seems, consists mostly of a dull job, an irritating boss, a mother conspicuous only in her absence and the histrionics of her next-door neighbours. With an endless expanse of eventless days stretching out before her, is it any wonder that Mary turns her attention elsewhere?

Namely, to a fox. While the infestation is considered by the rest of the neighbourhood to be a nuisance or even a threat, Mary grows fond of one fox in particular – she only one she ever sees, though the neighbourhood insist that there are many of them. This fondness develops into ardour, develops into obsession as we start to doubt the stability of Mary’s mental state and her reliability as a narrator. As the novel progresses, Mary becomes convinced that the fox is leaving gifts for her; she then begins to give romantic descriptions of “her Fox” and tells her diminishing human contacts that she is “seeing someone new”. She begins to exhibit the same behaviours she believes the fox is showing towards her – possessiveness and protectiveness – which are the same qualities that seemed so oppressive in her ex. She stops going to work and starts crawling around on all fours in the wilderness behind her house. All the while, the wilfully childless Mary begins to feel more and more drawn towards her neighbour’s newborn, Flora, an attraction that cannot fail to evoke a sense of dread in the reader. All is not well with poor Mary.

At its heart, the novel is an unsettling look into loneliness, human connection and the boundary between civilisation and wilderness. These themes are made clear because although Mary is a purposefully dull character stuck in a dreary life, she is incredibly reflective and aware of the metaphors that surround her, making her demise all the more disturbing. The reader has the sense that the world described through Mary’s eyes is not the world as it really is; all characters in the book are presented as difficult to understand and empathise with because that is how they appear to Mary. Their actions often seem hyperbolic, random and unmotivated; hence the trouble Mary is experiencing with forging friendships. The relationships she has had in the past are given equally little attention – specifically, the relationship with her ex-fiancé and with her mother. Neither is fully explored, which on one hand leaves them feeling unsubstantiated, but on the other makes a wider point about the way our protagonist connects (or fails to connect) with other people. The reader is denied fleshed-out or realistic relationships and is left wanting – just like Mary.

Reading this book feels like a game of Buckaroo that never ends. To Mary, time seems stretched and scenes are unnaturally elongated, with a matter of hours spanning multiple chapters. This is certainly atmospheric but can also make for a frustrating read at times. The tension keeps building and building without respite, intensified as the reader is sucked into Mary’s world almost against their will. Absorbing and subversive, Cocozza’s debut will certainly give you some food for thought.

Annie Warren

How to by Human is published by Hutchinson