Title: Tell the Wolves I’m Home
Author: Carol Rifka Brunt
Genre: Contemporary,Young Adult, Drama, Historical
My Rating: ★★★★★ (5/5 stars)
When cupids of literature decide to shoot, there are moments when they don’t stop at the ‘piercing’ stage. Sometimes they linger inside us and use their love arrows to carve a shelf-space in our hearts, whereafter they will gently lodge a special book. They synchronize our heartbeats with the flutters of that novel’s pages. And then they will tether it to all our memory muscles until we realize we will never forget its story no matter how hard we try.
My heart already contains a sizable literary treasure trove. A couple of weeks ago, I added to it a novel that rendered me weak-kneed with awe: Carol Rifka Brunt’s Tell the Wolves I’m Home.
The title itself is a siren’s call to my ears. It had me thinking, “What exactly are those wolves? Are those your fears? Are those the bad things you’ve run away from but are finally facing because you’re tired of hiding from them? Is this a poetic way of saying you’re giving up?” With these big question marks, I know I just have to read this and find out.
Tell the Wolves I’m Home is set in 1980s America and follows the story of fourteen-year-old June Elbus. Her quirkiness and love of anything medieval made her feel adrift even in her own home, and it is only Finn Weiss—a renowned New York painter and her favorite uncle—who becomes her friendly anchor. But the mooring is severed when Finn dies of an illness largely misunderstood at that time: AIDS. June feels abandoned with her own heartache, not only for having lost her best friend but also because her family’s grief seems to be eclipsed by embarrassment and resentment. After a furtive (and initially hesitant) correspondence with Toby, Finn’s lover, it dawns on her that she has found a kindred, damaged spirit. And maybe if she opens up some more, she’ll realize he’s the very person she needs the most…
This is the kind of book the narrator of 500 Days of Summer truthfully describes: not a love story but a story about love. Some people may raise their eyebrows and ask, “What does a wet-behind-the-ears teenage nerd know about the four-letter-word?” Pick up this book and surprise yourself.
What I like the most about this novel is that the author knew the difference between creating a character because she wants to have a “readable” megaphone and creating a character because she wants to mold a human that can spring from the pages. Brunt’s craft is the latter. She didn’t try to make June her precocious puppet; she made June the way June should be, which is a true child. The prose may be simplistic, but it carries a weight reminiscent of good poetry. I think that vibe is given off by how June’s words can tug at the heartstrings. She oozes with innocence, but she also has the kind of wisdom only the heartbroken ones could project. I salute Brunt for this wonderful blend! It’s one of those few books that separated themselves from most coming-of-age creations today, which have characters that are obviously adults trapped in kids’ bodies.
(I guess everyone can recognize bits of themselves in June. The awkward bits. The clumsy bits. The I-think-I’m-too-weird bits. The no-one-will-like-me-if-they-won’t-get-anything-from-me bits. The I’m-alone-but-not-really-lonely bits. Practically all those bits that make you want to wish that someone with genuine intention will love you as you are, and let you know.)
The unfurling of Toby and June’s complicated relationship is Wolves’ hub. Both characters have Finn-shaped holes in their universes, and in some peculiar way they manage to fill those holes with pieces of each other… pieces that also materialize Finn in the eyes of the reader. Brunt takes her time in kneading the whole thing in its most realistic form. The sibling rivalry also adds a poignant layer to the tale, although for the first half I thought Greta seems like a “mean girl” caricature that became developed too late in the novel. The parents are not given much character flesh (perhaps due to their portrayal as busy and a tad too inattentive figures), but their presence is palpable when it needs be.
World-building is ace as well. While nostalgia didn’t kick in (I was born in 1991), Brunt makes it so that you can feel the 1980s through her book. From fashion to music, from food to even the fears and boxed mentality of people then…they’re all alive. It’s like bolting through the chromes of the ‘80s.
In all honesty, there’s nothing much to say about the plot. Wolves puts emphasis on the beauty of anticipation instead of the element of surprise. Even its opening sentence tells you that: “My sister Greta and I were having our portrait painted by our Uncle Finn because he knew he was dying.” It’s the first piece of domino the author pushed for you. All you have to do is marvel at how each piece knocks the next one beautifully.
All in all, Tell the Wolves I’m Home successfully managed to pull a perfectWizard of Oz. It has brains, bursting with meaty morsels of wisdom at the four corners of every page; it has courage, not pulling any punches while it slowly reveals jagged truths about the dichotomy of human nature; and it has a heart—a big, big one—that sings a quiet cradlesong which can make you cry and still fill your chest with so much hope. That and its many flaws made it complete. This is how human a book should be.
Five stars for a stunning read.