Tell the Wolves I’m Home, by Carol Rifka Brunt, is a manifesto of what it means to love someone and what it means to lose them. Jealousy, anger, and misgivings are weaved together in a lucid, telling tapestry where wolves and dancing bears are hidden. Love isn’t always so forthcoming.
June Elbus loves her Uncle Finn more than anything. When he dies of AIDS, the terrifying disease everyone – including her mother – refuses to acknowledge, June isn’t sure she’ll survive it. The rest of her family seems to forget quickly enough. Her sister Greta most of all. However, Finn’s death signals the arrival of a stranger, someone that will change June’s life forever. He may be the only other person who loved Finn as much as she did. But how could that be?
This novel was not what I expected. For some reason, despite the slightly foreboding cover, I predicted the story to have more of a sanguine undertone, something a bit more upbeat. As became apparent a couple chapters in: that was not the case. Nevertheless, this tale did not suffer from a lack of heartiness in detail or character development. In fact, it flourished.
Each character was drawn beautifully and in such a unique style. I really don’t think I’ve seen this type of novel before. With a lot of fiction like this – and fiction in general – the author quickly tries to get out as much about the character as they can so they can focus on the rest of the plot, which can actually sometimes cause the rest of the novel to wilt with lack of reinforcement for that character’s arc.
Brunt is different. She, so brilliantly, gives you little snippets of detail in the beginning chapters and in the first part of the novel. By doing so she is setting the reader up for those twists in personality that come later. You and June, the narrator, think you know this other character really well, but then something in June’s perspective shifts and you’re faced with someone with a narrative different than the one you were seeing. It really is looking at things through the narrator’s eyes, as well as seeing that main character change herself. June is so realistic and raw that you can really get inside her head and feel what she is feeling. It’s fascinating from a writer and reader perspective.
The other thing completely unique about Tell the Wolves I’m Home – other than that amazing title – is the way it entangles the concepts of love and jealousy within the plot and characters.
“He loved Finn more than you did.
That’s what it told me. And I knew it was true.
I could feel a hard cold knot forming in the center of my chest. I’m not a jealous person. I’m not a jealous person. I’m not a jealous person. I thought that to myself over and over again, slowing my breathing down. I looked up at Toby.
“Well … did Finn ever paint a portrait of you?”
– Carol Rifka Brunt
As June’s character is unravelled in the second half of the novel, it becomes apparent just how enraptured she was with Finn. He was her first love and first love is a very intimate, perplexing thing. Now it was a little creepy at first, not gonna lie, but it’s not that creepy because this isn’t Game of Thrones. Throughout the book the reader gets a very good look at this complicated jealousy web that surrounds June and her family, with Finn hovering as this sort of unreachable, grand person(a).
Toby, Finn’s lover, is a focal point, and a very well-written one. As the characters discover for themselves, Toby and June were jealous of each other, even if they didn’t quite know it until later. They both loved Finn the most. And because of that, there is this brilliantly-executed game of tug of war going on here. June wants to keep her Finn stories to herself, she doesn’t want to give pieces of him away in the fear that she’ll lose their connection any more than they already have, with his demise, and Toby was simply pining for more time. But they, as the reader finds in one of the novel’s little twists, were not the only ones who loved him. And Finn was not the only one who loved June, as she originally thought and as we find out.
June’s mother, Finn’s sister, is one of those obscure characters. The ones that an author draws out, the one they keep to themselves until the right time presents itself. For most of the novel all we know is that she disapproves of Finn “quitting” art, and his relationship with Toby – especially when he’s diagnosed with AIDS. She blames Toby.
To her, he is no better than a murderer.
But there’s a reason for her hatred. Just as there always is. When it came down to the grit, she was really just jealous of Finn’s life and opportunities in New York, of leaving her behind. She missed her brother, missed the time they could have had together in the city. It was there the whole time, June just didn’t see it.
At first the reader will side with June and her perspective, because why wouldn’t you? Especially because her sister Greta is pretty mean. But there’s a reason for her actions too. If Tell the Wolves I’m Home tells you anything: it’s that nothing is as it seems.
Overall, Brunt’s writing is a casual type of majesty. The book itself is just very well executed and styled to near perfection. Reading it felt like winding down a path of rose bushes with a wolf nipping at my heels, which translates to a 9/10.