Carol Rifka Brunt’s debut novel Tell the Wolves I’m Home is a delightful look at family, the pains of growing up, and human nature—both the good and the ugly.
June is the quintessential awkward teenager. She can’t relate to her family, and she has no real friends. She feels decidedly average, especially compared to her shining older sister, Greta, who seems to excel in almost anything she tries. She feels most at home in the woods, where she can indulge in her passion for the Middle Ages and pretend that she is in a time long ago, far from the modern world where she struggles to belong.
The one thing June has going for her is her uncle, and godfather, Finn. Uncle Finn is everything June is not—urbane, a talented and charming artist—and he is the most important person in her world. When she’s with him, June feels special, too. But June knows that Finn has AIDS, and that it’s only a matter of time before her life changes forever. Little does she know, however, that Finn’s death will bring a strange new friendship into her life and reshape everything she knows about family and love.
But June knows that Finn has AIDS, and that it’s only a matter of time before her life changes forever.
Don’t be fooled by the publisher’s synopsis: this book is not about LGBTQ themes, and is only marginally more about AIDS. At its core, Tell the Wolves I’m Home is a very character-driven novel about June’s changing heart, and about the ways rifts in families can tear apart or be mended back together.
One thing I love about this debut is how Rifka Brunt has created a very real cast of characters. As a narrator, June presents almost everyone of consequence in a dead honest, flaws-forward way, especially herself. “I know how gross that is, how revolting,” she says, after making a big personal admission to the reader late in the first chapter, “but I want to tell the truth.” Rifka Brunt holds to that policy through the whole book, never flinching from showing us the best and worst of her cast at the same time. She holds them in perfect balance; no matter how petty or cruel someone may act, I always saw how the negative traits and reactions reflected the ways each person was hurting from the deep, hidden cracks within the Elbus family. There were antagonists, but in the end, no villains—only humans, longing for something.
Rifka Brunt holds to that policy through the whole book, never flinching from showing us the best and worst of her cast at the same time.
June’s struggles with early teenage life are the real deal. From awkward attempts to learn how to interact with other kids and feelings of loneliness to the angst of unseemly crushes, June’s journey reminds me so much of the worst, ugliest parts of adolescence, but watching her pull through with her own quiet inner strength was sweet.
Rifka Brunt’s writing is powerful and insightful, and her style will hook you right in. When I was in the swing of things, this book was hard to put down. The trouble was, as the book went on, I had a harder and harder time making myself pick it back up after a break. Even though the narration was engaging, the plot got too dragged down by the myriad relationships driving the book. In the second half, I kept asking myself before reluctantly grabbing the book again, “How much longer is this going to take?” The relationships and character dynamics that I was most invested in (and that I think were most central to the book) started coming to a boil, but the narration would jump to other threads of the story and linger there in a way that frustrated and bored me way more than it pleasantly built anticipation. I think the latter part of the book could have been slimmed down a bit to good effect.
At the end of the day, Tell the Wolves I’m Home is a wonderful read. At turns a beautiful, awful, tragic, and uplifting read about the renewal of family bonds and the human heart, there is a lot here to love. It wasn’t quite the book for me, but this book is sure to be a favorite for many people. Just hold your heart close—and maybe a box of tissues closer.
All in All…
- 4/5 sea stars
- Published June 19, 2012, by Random House
- 360 pages
- For fans of literary fiction, family drama, well-written sibling relationships