Reviewed by Mohsin Siddiqui
The number of novels with a fantastic opening line and horrifically bad rest-of-the-story is mildly alarming. Fortunately for all concerned, Carol Rifka Brunt’s debut novel, Tell the Wolves I’m Home, manages to avoid this fate. It’s practically impossible to not get sucked into a book that opens with the line: “My sister, Greta, and I were having our portrait painted by our uncle Finn that afternoon because he knew he was dying.”
This is our introduction to June Elbus, whose story kicks off with the loss of her uncle and best friend, the reclusive artist Finn Weiss. Victim of a mysterious disease, Finn was June’s closest family member, and only real confidante. With his passing, June loses the one person who seemed to truly understand and accept her without reservation.
The timing couldn’t be worse. June’s sister, Greta, has become unaccountably cruel and distant (and it’s not just in that Mean Girls sort of way), spending most of her time firing off the sort of zingers that would probably constitute terminable harassment in the world of adults, and generally being all around awful to her younger sister. Their accountant parents, in addition to refusing to speak about Finn’s death, are also right in the middle of tax season, leaving June in the strange position of being not just lonely, but actually alone.
But there’s more to the story than just the tale of a lonely teenager. This is the 1980s, remember, and Finn’s status as a “confirmed bachelor” means that his death carries tones sinister enough to take a starring role in any Edgar Allan Poe story. Brunt’s novel is set in the days when HIV was so extraordinarily stigmatised that Ronald Reagan wouldn't even admit that the disease existed. Brunt mirrors this wilful ignorance in June’s mother, who not only won’t speak of her brother’s death, but also refuses to acknowledge the reality of her brother’s partner, Toby.
Brunt is too savvy a writer to root this behaviour in homophobia, though. We begin to realise just how complex and deep the undercurrents in the whole situation are when Toby first reaches out to June. Initially, it is easy to think that Toby is reviled because he’s homosexual; then, because he’s the one who infected Finn with HIV. But Finn has — even in death — done the unexpected, and left June a message asking her to take care of Toby. Torn between loyalty to Finn’s wishes, the clear antipathy demonstrated by her family, and most of all, confused by the realisation that there might just have been someone else who loved Finn just as much as she did, June starts to understand that everything in life is a lot more grey than she’d imagined.
“You could try to believe what you wanted, but it never worked,” she realises. “Your brain and your heart decided what you were going to believe and that was that. Whether you liked it or not.” And there is a lot not to like. As Brunt carefully teases out the strands of June’s life, truth starts rearing its ugly head. We start getting insights into who Finn really was; into why June’s mother is so conflicted about her brother; about how we need to find ways — and excuses, really — to keep going on, even when our hearts are broken, and all we want is to rage against the unfairness of it all. Why it’s okay to love, to be in love and to be loved, even if it’s not the sort of thing you really want to talk about.
There are many reasons why Tell the Wolves I’m Home works so remarkably well. Part of it is in Brunt’s extraordinary accuracy: June isn’t a precocious teenager, or a barely concealed enfant terrible. Nor is she some sort of gynocratic Holden Caulfield or Everyteen. Instead, she’s just right — a teenager who daydreams about the things that matter to her, like what it might have been like to live in the Middle Ages, or at what age someone’s supposed to have a signature. Her naïveté could easily cross over into the realm of twee affectation, but it is genuinely a sign of Brunt’s ability to write good characters that she avoids this fate worse than death.
It’s more than just characterisation though, that makes Brunt’s novel such a treat to read. Brunt knows how to tell a story, and Tell the Wolves I’m Home is the best kind of coming-of-age story, one that straddles the invisible — and palpable — boundary between adolescence and adulthood. Whether it’s June trying to understand the grotesquery of her sister’s behaviour, or Toby living in squalor amidst the tatters of Finn’s jewel-like apartment, Brunt’s writing is complex without being maddening or exhortative.
There are some really standout moments in a book that is already crystalline in its tone and pacing: when June discovers how much Toby and Finn mean to each other, or when the Elbus parents find out that the painting of their daughters is far more than simply an artefact of memory (no spoilers … read the book to find out more!). But it is hard to untangle this story, because much of its complexity comes from such simple, humble roots. Like DNA, it is a helix made up of deceptively simple building blocks, all coming together in different permutations and combinations to elicit a multitude of emotional effects.
Tell The Wolves I’m Home may be a remarkably elegant examination of several things, but at its core, Brunt’s novel is about how choice can cripple you; how the burden of opportunity can paralyse you, and how all the things you think you know and understand are actually just windows looking onto distant vistas of experience that you may not actually wish to have. And more than anything else, it is the best kind of cliché (the kind you groan out loud about admitting, but have to admit because it is so painfully obvious): the idea that there is an almost infinite capacity in each of us to forgive, and to heal each other. More than redemption, it is about grace and our ability to not just evoke, but live a life of meaning … not just for ourselves, but for each other.
By Carol Rifka Brunt
Dial Press Trade Paperback