The fox in literature is a cunning creature of cleverness and wisdom. In his book ‘Trickster Makes This World: Mischief, Myth and Art’ Lewis Hyde observes the symbolism of the fox: ‘Folklore about foxes has it that a fox, pursued by the hounds, will sometimes run a distance and then double back on its own tracks; when the hounds come to the place where the fox turned they are flummoxed and wander around barking at one another.’ It is this pattern, sewn like layered stitches that ricochet back and forth that we see so expertly handled and tricksily explored in Paula Cocozza’s debut novel ‘How To Be Human’.
Mary’s life is falling apart. But we do not know that when we first meet our protagonist as the story begins in medias res, in the moment when she finds a baby on the back door step of her house in the suburbs of London.
After months of ‘stateless gloom’ – having broken up with her fiancé, being stuck in a job in HR she hates and facing disciplinary action at work, Mary is lonely. So she befriends a fox who she meets in her garden.
It is this unique companionship that defines the novel’s sweetly serene plot. Mary’s main focus in life is the fox, now that she has taken time off work: his whiskers, his eyes, fur, ears. They occupy her mind and twitch about on the pages in the book, enriching the tapestry of her thoughts and the tracks left by ideas in the story.
At times we find ourselves in the ‘Mad Woman in the Attic’ territory, as her obsession with the enormous fox consumes her. She starts to see people in terms of foxes. For example, when she is at her neighbour’s barbeque, she sees a man and focuses on his shirt falling forward to show the hairs on his navel, which were darker gold.’ Pretty soon, ‘All she could think was fox, fox, fox.’ So it may come as no surprise when she starts to behave like a fox too and mimics their movements, rubbing ‘her ear on her shoulder.’ We cannot help but feel rather sorry for Mary. Her blossoming friendship with the fox (for whom she cannot quite settle on a name, sometimes ‘Red’, sometimes ‘Raphael’) is a direct result of her very real solitariness and desire for company. She looks out to nature for reassurance. Her fierce projections of her feelings (and imagined fox feelings) certainly approach my definition of insanity: ‘She and Mark had once seen a documentary about people who put out peanut butter sandwiches and apple pies. The foxes loved those people. But not in the way he loved her. He came every day, and she left nothing for him except herself.’ It forces us to question: if loneliness is the cause of these ideas regarding her fox, themselves as wild as a fox, then is the company of a fox the solution?
Mark, her horrible ex-boyfriend/fiancé, is not fully out of the picture as she finds out that he is living only around the corner from her. She is alarmed by his sudden, new muscles when she runs into him. It serves as clever, two-fold symbolism by Cocozza; on the one hand, it hints at the possible cruel nature of their past relationship and on the other, it shows where her new predilections lie. She now favours paws, not muscles.
It is not a pacey book per se, but we happily slink through the story, as though travelling along a fox’s spine fully stretched out at leisure in the sunshine. The merging of two worlds, urban and rural, and the description of the fox who is able to enjoy both, takes time to explore; it wouldn’t surprise me if this novel originated as a short story. The fox who doesn’t have to consider if it is ‘safer outside or in?’ as Mary does, surely holds her admiration. His freedom. His stealth. It is no wonder that Mary adores him.
Will Mary learn from her fox How To Be Human, if such a thing can ever be taught? You’ll have to read it to find out!
It was a very enjoyable book and I’m looking forward to reading Paula Cocozza’s next novels.
‘How To Be Human’ by Paula Cocozza was published by Hutchinson on 13th April 2017. £12.99 hardback.
My copy of ‘How To Be Human’ was kindly sent to me (on my request) by the publisher to review.