One From the Archive: ‘Tell the Wolves I’m Home’ by Carol Rifka Brunt *****

Tell the Wolves I’m Home is the debut novel of Carol Rifka Brunt. Its story focuses upon fourteen-year-old June Elbus, whose uncle, Finn, is the ‘only person who has ever truly understood her’. The novel takes place in the New York suburbs and opens at the end of 1986.

9781447202141The opening sentence of this beautifully crafted novel captures the attention immediately: ‘My sister Greta and I were having our portrait painted by our uncle Finn that afternoon because he knew he was dying’. Finn has AIDS at a time in which no cures were available, and in which the horrors of the disease were just beginning to come to light. June tells us: ‘We’d been going to Finn’s one Sunday afternoon a month for the last six months. It was always just my mother, Greta, and me. My father never came, and he was right not to. He wasn’t part of it’. His decline is tough on the entire Elbus family: ‘All those Sundays, my mother hardly looked at Finn. It was obvious that she was being broken up into pieces about her only brother dying’.

June’s narrative voice is engaging, and we are plunged straight into her story from the outset. We feel her fears and grief, along with the small triumphs she overcomes along the way. Throughout, her childish naivety adds a lovely touch to the novel. During the portrait painting session, June tells us, ‘I felt like grabbing the paintbrush right out of his hand so I could color him in, paint him back to his old self’. This innocence of June’s, particularly when it focuses upon Finn’s illness, is touching. Whilst she understands that her uncle is ill, she does not know about the intricacies of the disease as nobody is willing to discuss them with her. She asks such things of her elder sister as whether she could ‘catch’ AIDS if Finn kissed her hair or her forehead. Such naivety is truly heartbreaking at times.

As a protagonist, June is an interesting choice. Many original personality traits can be found within her, and rather than being the make-up and fashion loving stereotype of a teenage girl, her hobbies and interests feel rather unique – for example, the way in which she likes to pretend she lives within the Medieval period, and her dreams of being a falconer when she finishes school. She and her sister are complete opposites, and June is somewhat lonely in consequence: ‘Greta got prettier and I got… weirder’, she tells us. June is a vivid and wholly realistic character in consequence. The novel is told in retrospect, and June is around one year older than she was when Finn’s death occurred. This present day narrative is woven with memories from June’s past.

The secret which June clutches close to her chest is the way in which she felt about her uncle. At his funeral, she confesses to us, almost as though we are her only confidant in life: ‘I kept quiet, knowing that the sadness I was feeling was the wrong kind of sadness for a niece… Nobody knew my heart even a little bit. Nobody had any idea how many minutes of each day I spent thinking about Finn, and, thankfully, nobody had any idea exactly what kind of thoughts they were’. The grief she feels is tender, and the way in which she expresses it is touchingly honest: ‘Finn kept sneaking inside my head. I wished he’d been buried instead of cremated, because then I could take off my gloves and press my palms to the ground and know that he was there somehow’.

At the funeral, she and her sister are instructed not to let a certain man into the service. When June asks Greta about the man’s identity, her sister delights in telling her: ‘He’s the guy who killed uncle Finn’. A couple of weeks after this incident, June receives a package in the mail – a beautiful porcelain teapot which used to belong to her uncle. It arrives with a note from Toby, Finn’s partner whom the girls knew nothing about, which says: ‘I know you saw me at the funeral. I was the man nobody wanted to see… I think you are perhaps the only person who misses Finn as much as I do, and I think just one meeting might be beneficial to us both’. A clandestine friendship, taut at first and touching throughout, ensues. Both realise that the concrete foundations of their love for Finn and their grief at his passing are stronger than anything, and that they can help one another through it in consequence.

Brunt writes beautifully, and she has portrayed the hideous realities of the 1980s AIDS epidemic in the most heartfelt of ways, by examining not only the space left behind when a death is caused by the disease, but the memories too. Although Finn is not alive during the novel’s telling, we still learn a lot about him and can see why June adores him so. This multi-layered novel is about so many things – love, remembrance, trust, understanding and family dynamics – and is incredibly sad and moving throughout.

Tell the Wolves I’m Home is a coming-of-age story of the most touching kind. The character development throughout is incredibly well crafted, and the novel itself is magnificent, particularly when one takes into account that it is a debut. Had it come from an already established author, it would be something akin to a masterpiece. Brunt has written a book which is incredibly difficult to put down, and has crafted a story which is sure to stay with its readers for a long time to come.

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