Shortlisted for this year’s Desmond Elliott Prize awarded to debut novels published in the UK, ‘How to Be Human’ by Paula Cocozza tells the story of Mary Green, a woman in her thirties who has recently separated from her partner Mark. Now living alone after buying him out of their home in Hackney in east London, she becomes captivated by an urban fox who regularly visits her garden. Meanwhile, her next door neighbours, Michelle and Eric, regard her new visitor as a pest while Mark makes an unwelcome return into her life.

The setting of Hackney may conjure up images of gritty urban landscapes but there are a number of green spaces in parts of this rapidly gentrifying borough too. Mary’s garden backs on to woodland where Fox has his den, and the close proximity with which they live alongside each other in such different environments raises interesting themes surrounding boundaries and marking territory. Indeed, as these boundaries become increasingly blurred, the book poses many questions about Mary’s ambiguous mental state – is she delusional, grieving or a sociopath? Mary’s life appeared to be relatively stable not so long ago and the narrative captures just how fragile the tipping point can be and how quickly her whole life has changed. However, flashbacks to her childhood and Mark’s subtly controlling behaviour also shows that life was not all rosy for her even during this happier time. 

There is relatively little action with most of the plot focused on extended set-pieces such as a very awkward barbecue at Michelle and Eric’s house. The prose is stuffed with deft observations as summarised through Mary’s jaded view of the world: “The magazines were full of stories about women choosing between their career and their maternal instincts. But what if you had neither?” Mary’s loneliness appears to veer towards paranoia at times – an early scene where she is babysitting Michelle and Eric’s young son George and newborn baby Flora is a chillingly realistic portrayal of being alone in a house and fearing a possible intruder. Other parts are more playful and experimental with language, such as the occasional glimpses of Fox’s perspective of events.

‘How to Be Human’ is an excellent debut novel – subversive, unusual, profound and open to a myriad of fascinating interpretations which I have been thinking about all week. Many thanks to the organisers of the Desmond Elliott Prize for sending me a review copy.