Carol Rifka Brunt’s stunning 2012 debut coming-of-age, Tell the Wolves I’m Home, begins, as most memorable novels do, with a great first line:
My sister, Greta, and I were having our portrait painted by our uncle Finn that afternoon because he knew he was dying.
The painting at the heart of this novel becomes an important one and Brunt makes subtle yet revelatory use of it throughout June’s story. June is 13 when her uncle Finn dies of AIDS. It’s 1987, a time when the disease is rarely spoken of and little understood. When Finn dies, June loses her closest family member, her closest friend. With her older sister, Greta, increasingly cutting and mean to June and her two accountant parents lost in the demands of tax season, June mourns his loss in her own way and in her own time. Then Finn’s reviled boyfriend, Toby, the one the family believes got Finn sick, seeks June out. Their shared love of Finn creates, at first, an uneasy connection between the two. It is the blooming of June’s relationship with Toby, who is also sick, that fills this novel with surprise and emotional depth.
Brunt gets the details so right. The late ’80s are captured in small details without trying too hard–Greta’s Jean Nate perfume, the music and pop culture references of the time. What Brunt also does is create a believable 13-to-14-year-old girl. So many adult writers make their teens too adultish, too articulate for their age. But June worries about things like when does a person start to have a signature and wonders, as she wanders through the woods, what it would have been like to live in the past. There is a curious, naive quality to June that is refreshing and true, even as her illusions start to peel away.
Tell the Wolves I’m Home is the kind of gem that you will want to hand to readers young and old, tell book groups about and buy for your friends and relatives. It’s a story about connection, memory, family and love. It’s a novel that perfectly captures those things that are so hard to say and acknowledge about ourselves and others, the kinds of grievances and grudges that hold us back and the personal insight and acceptance that might just set us free.