How to Be Human is the oddly mesmerising tale of Mary – recently split from her controlling fiancé, unsatisfied with her job, haunted by a loveless upbringing, and unsure of what path to take. “The magazines were full of stories of women choosing between their career and their maternal instincts. But what if you had neither? What if you were still waiting?” The book opens with her discovery of a baby on her doorstep – but who left it there, and why?
Before we can probe this mystery we are brought back in time, to Mary returning home and finding a resplendent fox reclining on her lawn. She takes his presence to be a sign he has chosen her – but for what purpose? As Mary becomes increasingly obsessed with her connection to the fox – who brings her gifts, who she lets into her home, and who is claiming her garden as his territory – her connection to reality becomes more questionable. By the time we catch back up to the baby on the doorstep, we have no way of knowing if the baby was placed there by her struggling new parent neighbours; her ex-fiancé who is still enraged she doesn’t want children; by the fox; or by Mary herself. It doesn’t really matter who did it – consequences are real even when the actions themselves are mysterious.
I’m not entirely sure why now, but I expected this book to be quite like The Portable Veblen (but with foxes, not squirrels). However, Mary’s loosening grip on reality is not kooky, it is dark and uncomfortable. The writing throughout is luscious, including the evocative passages where we slip into the fox’s point of view. How to Be Human is a complex, intriguing book that defies easy placement in a genre, and well deserves a read.
How to Be Human is published by Hutchinson Books (an imprint of Penguin Random House). I received a copy from the publisher in exchange for an honest review.