With family, job and Christmas stresses all on the up this month, my mind has kind of been in a million and one different places recently. Unfortunately, I’ve probably spent more time this month staring out of the window than doing anything productive in the last couple of weeks. Rest assured though, I did manage to focus my brain on one book this month, which I’m super excited to write about!
How To Be Human – Paula Cocozza
If I had to choose one thing I love about literature it’s the chance to delve into the crazy depths of human psychology and explore what it means for an individual to be “other” whilst being, at the same time, a direct product of the society or culture that they belong to.
To me, this is the theme at the heart of Paula Cocozza’s How To Be Human. To briefly sum up the plot, How To Be Human focuses on Mary, a recently single thirty-something woman living in semi-suburban London, who becomes obsessed with a fox (or is it more than one fox?) who frequents her garden and the “woods” behind her house. Whilst developing a pseudo-sexual relationship with said fox, who she traps inside her house, she’s also “keeping up appearances” with the neighbours and trying desperately to fit in and rebuild her life without her ex-fiancé who turns out to be spying on her… As I’ve said before, I like weird books.
From the word “go” Mary’s story is tinged with the beginnings of insanity or at least some serious mental illness. On the verge of losing her job because she’s unable to make it into work on time, or care about the work she’s doing (I don’t think it’s an accident that she works in HR), Mary’s mental decline seems to have already begun. Although at this point, it seems that her reclusiveness and lack of motivation are understandable side effects of the breakdown of her relationship and signs of a depressive state, Mary soon becomes obsessive, delusional and more than a little bit psychotic.
When you look at this theme of insanity throughout the novel and put it with the title, the pieces of the puzzle start to fit together nicely. Mary’s insanity stems from her loneliness. With Mark gone and her relationship with her mother held together by a thread, Mary really has no one in her life. To me, it seems that humans, are fundamentally social creatures. We can’t be “properly” human without other humans in our lives. And in the absence of other humans, we turn “wild” and end up crawling through woods in our back gardens with foxes.
But, like any interesting novel, the theme of humanity is not as simple as this. Yes, Mary goes a little bit nuts by society’s standards and ends up being obsessed with a wild animal, but this could also be a sign that she is more human than her civilised neighbours.
Throughout the novel, foxes are frequently referenced as pests and dangers to the community which need to be eradicated by violent means; poison, traps and faux fox hunts are all depicted as good ways to de-fox the area. Mary’s repeated attempts to stop these from happening suggest that humane and human are one and the same. Compassion for other living beings and a consideration of their lives/ thoughts/ emotions are one of things that sets humans apart from the rest of the animal kingdom.
When you put this next to the other big theme that runs through How To Be Human, motherhood, you’ve got yourself a pretty clear picture. Mary cannot connect with her own mother, just as Michelle, her neighbour cannot connect with her own baby, Flora. Where maternal instinct is concerned, Mary holds the upper hand over her own mother and Michelle in her relationship with Flora. She can instinctively bond with a baby, a being that is, arguably a human in it’s purest form, having not been moulded by the constructs of society yet.
I don’t know what all of this means, but I do think it’s all very interesting. Whilst I would say that “accidentally” stealing a baby and trapping a fox in your own home for companionship (you’ll have to read it to know what I’m talking about) are both extremely crazy behaviours, there’s definitely something more to the novel than just simply following a crazy lady’s unravelling. Yes, Mary is crazy in society’s sense of the word, but her deterioration seems to be more or less a return to an instinctive state that humanity’s lost touch with. So forget civilisation and all it’s trappings, maybe it’s instinct that makes us fundamentally human.