How to Be Human: A Novel by Paula Cocozza
Mary Green has a baby on her back step. “The surprise came not from seeing the baby, but from seeing what was around her. A baby on the back step. It was the step that was wrong.” With those brief sentences in the second paragraph of How to Be Human, debut novelist Paula Cocozza lets readers into a space in which perception is especially cryptic. There is nothing surprising about a baby, but doorsteps become highly suspicious when they have babies on them.
Mary, a thirty-four-year-old Londoner with a recent broken engagement and a house that is now her own, finds the child midway through the novel’s plot, a discovery that both introduces the novel and reappears, verbatim, midway through it. In the scene’s first iteration, a few more clues about the toying-with-perception story that will soon unfold emerge in Mary’s scrutiny of her doorstep parcel: The baby’s pupil is “deep gray-blue velvet, replete with color yet in denial of its color,” Cocozza writes. “Delivery, deliverance, she mused. Which was right? And what sort of damn brain did she have that in a moment of crisis it wanted to pick at the gaps between words?”
Those verbal interstices are even more salient when they are presented as coming not from a human’s brain but from that of a fox. The emergent central figure in Mary’s universe — her fascination turned companion, ally, and obsession — is a fox, whose point of view we sometimes lean up against. “Tip tap tip tap went the wood louse across the. Leaf tipped. Louse flipped. All those little legs, waggling fascinatingly.” Sentences truncate, words distend, and senses ascend in the fox’s world.
Mary’s fox visits her garden from the woods behind her house, a “patch of wasteland, but magical for all that” in the midst of east London. As his visits become more regular, and as human and fox develop a routine of spending time together in the garden, Mary starts leaving work earlier and earlier. They lie next to each other atop a blanket, and Mary talks to him: “He was so easy to talk to. He seemed to understand her.”
Cocozza’s novel blends a narrative of yearning — of seeking something beyond what humans can provide — and domestic comedy. Mary’s neighbors are not as smitten with the fox as she is. When her neighbors Eric and Michelle — who are juggling a toddler and a baby, amid frequent household hysterics — host a barbecue, the fox’s cameo prompts a vigilante pursuit, complete with torches. Mary’s ex Mark, an attendee at the barbecue, uses the opportunity to demonstrate his domineering hero complex.
Mary is horrified by the partiers, “drunken humans sprawled on blankets soppy with spilt beer,” yet her actions introduce questions about her own humanity versus animality. Her role in the narrative is a murky one, her reliability suspect. Cocozza does a stellar job of raising questions about the nature of humanity (but not answering them, despite the promise of the title), amid language that is inventive and intricate.
At times the novel’s momentum dips; the unequal human-fox relationship does not always yield much activity. Yet its peculiar way of presenting fundamental elements of personhood is never less than captivating. Solitude and love have rarely been such curious companions. — Grace Parazzoli