Sometimes you only have to pick up a book to know it's going to be something special. I'd never heard of Carol Rifka Brunt's novel Tell The Wolves I'm Home when I found it at work the other day, and yet I knew before I even read the cover blurb that it had the potential to be a good friend. Maybe it's the wistful dreaminess of the title, or the striking, bright green cover design. I prefer to think that it was some kind of magic inside the book itself, calling out to me, knowing that it had found a kindred spirit.
I returned to look at this book several times while working in the bookshop, and when I found a shiny new copy in the library a few days later, I knew it was meant to be. Tell The Wolves I'm Home is the story of an introverted teenage girl, June, dealing with the death of her uncle Finn, who was her closest friend and confidant, from AIDS. Through her grief, she strikes up an unlikely secret friendship with Toby, Finn's partner, and gets to know her uncle better through Toby's memories.
Tell The Wolves is a story about love and loss, but also of finding, growing up, death and life, loneliness and jealousy, but at its heart, it is a tale of family. The book brings the reader into June's family, and gradually, although the primary relationship is between June and Finn - both living and dead - it becomes clear that the bond between June and her sister Greta is as important, or, I would argue, even more so. The sisters were close as children, but in their teenage years have grown apart. Greta appears at first as that familiar figure, the mean elder sister; the grumpy, rebellious teenager who can't help but pick on her shyer younger sister. But the reader comes to realise, long before June does, that Greta is lonely too. Greta starts off as a background figure in the novel, which is how June sees her; while she is so preoccupied with the absence of Finn, she misses the sister who is right beside her, trying in a clumsy way to reach out to her. June and Greta echo the fragile and fractured relationship between Finn and their mother Danni, who was his sister. Once close, they had let secrets, jealousy and resentment come between them, never to be fully resolved.
Finn was once a famous artist, but one who disappeared from public life some time ago. His final work is a portrait of June and Greta, which is the object at the centre of the novel. The painting lives on as Finn's legacy, and is added to by all those who loved the artist most, becoming a collaborative work containing parts of each of them. Tell The Wolves I'm Home demonstrates how each person's life touches many others, how we are formed by the relationships we make and the people we meet. After Finn's death, June discovers that many of his quirks and traits had originated from Toby, and in turn, she sees much of Finn in Toby. Perhaps because of this, I found it a bit difficult to view Toby and Finn as separate characters, and wondered whether June was looking for a substitute Finn in her new friendship with Toby, an issue that is addressed in the novel.
June is a thoughtful girl and mature for her age, so it would come as a bit of a shock whenever I was reminded that after all, she is still very young. Fourteen is a strange age when one is part child, part adult, and sometimes the two parts don't sit well together at all. The busyness of June's parents make it easier for her to take the train from the suburbs into New York City without their knowledge, and a couple of times I wondered why the secrecy? Surely it would be better to discuss Toby, Finn and all the unresolved issues between the families as adults, though they may have to get through some unpleasantness first? And then I remembered that they aren't all adults. I remembered how powerless you are at fourteen. If adults say no, they won't discuss something, then you can't make them. They can stop you seeing someone, going somewhere, doing anything. Finn (and later Toby) was the exception in treating June as an equal.
Tell The Wolves I'm Home touched me close to the heart. June reminded me of myself as a teenager - shy and always an outsider, though I think that despite her quietness she had more confidence in herself as a person than I did at her age. The story, too, reminded me of the stories I would write in my teens - which is not in itself a recommendation, as I was inclined towards the sentimental and the morbid. Carol Rifka Brunt avoids crossing the line into sentimentality with her lyrical prose and strong characters and relationships. Tell The Wolves I'm Home is a very beautiful, very human story, and I closed the book with reluctance. The best new book I've read this year so far. I will be buying my own copy of this book, and it will take its place on my "favourites" shelf.
If you enjoyed this, you might like:
When God was a Rabbit - Sarah Winman
A Place of Secrets - Rachel Hore
Paper Towns - John Green
Eve Green - Susan Fletcher
The Earth Hums in B Flat - Mari Strachan