Book Review -- Tell the Wolves I'm Home

brunt Carol Rifka Brunt serves up a heart-wrenching, lyrical story in Tell the Wolves I'm Home: June is 14, and in love with her gay uncle, Finn, who happens to dying of AIDS.

June, of course, is horrified by her feelings and tries desperately to hide them. She thinks to herself, "You could try to believe what you wanted, but it never worked. Your brain and your heart decided what you were going to believe and that was that. Whether you liked it or not." And, "I know all about love that's too big to stay in a tiny bucket. Splashing out all over the place in the most embarrassing way possible."

Finn and June spend a great deal of time together, and before he passes away (not a spoiler, it happens really soon in the novel), he paints a portrait of June, and her sarcastic older sister, Greta. Upon his death, June is devastated, Greta seems like she could care less, and June's mother simultaneously seems to miss her brother and hold a serious grudge against him. Brunt writes that Finn's death "was like a cassette tape you could never rewind. But it was hard to remember you couldn't rewind it while you were listening to it. And so you'd forget and fall into the music and listen and then, without you even knowing it, the tape would suddenly end."

At Finn's funeral, June notices a man lingering around, and quickly wonders who he is, especially after her mother and father warn her to stay away from him. But the strange man makes himself known to June soon after, and it turns out he is a close friend of Finn's. June has never heard of him, and despite her mother's caution toward him, hesitantly accepts his requests to spend time together. She thought she knew everything about her dear uncle, and it turns out she was wrong.

Meanwhile, the long-forgotten portrait that Finn painted of the two sisters is deemed valuable -- very valuable. This becomes another fact about Finn that June learns: he used to be an incredibly famous painter, who seemingly threw it all away for a life of obscurity many years ago. June's mother hides the painting in a bank vault, but gives both June and Greta keys to the safe.

Life goes on, and June continues to build a friendship with Toby. She remains extremely jealous that Toby knew Finn so well, but hungry to learn all she can, all the while lamenting things like:

"I mean, why did sex have to be so important? Why couldn't people live together, spend their whole lives together, just because they liked each other's company? Just because they liked each other more than than they liked anyone else in the whole world? If you found a person like that you wouldn't have to have sex. You could just hold them, couldn't you? You could sit close to them, nestle into them so you could hear the machine of them churning away. You could press your ear against that person's back, listening to the rhythm of them, knowing that you were both made of the same exact stuff. You could do things like that."

With this relationship, Brunt questions the traditional notions and depictions of connections and love -- she's really asking: why do these things have to constitute the legitimacy of a relationship? Can you ever fully know somebody, and if not, can you really love him or her? 

June's ability to communicate with her sister, Greta, starts to deteriorate once she learns her sister has picked up a destructive habit. June and Greta attempt to communicate their frustration about the past, their sadness over losing Finn, and their difficulty in understanding each other now through the painting -- a series of actions that loop back to their family later on. Toby serves an integral role in June's understanding of Finn as a whole person, and provides a critical helping hand toward the end of the novel, as June attempts to keep her family connected.

In one particularly beautiful scene, Toby and June discuss death and living a full life:

Toby says, "Don't you know? That's the secret. If you always make sure you're exactly the same person you hoped to be, if you always make sure you know only the very best people, then you won't care if you die tomorrow."

June replies, "That doesn't make any sense. If you were so happy, then you'd want to stay alive, wouldn't you? You'd want to be alive forever, so you could keep being happy."

Toby responds, "No, no. It's the most unhappy people who want to stay alive, because they think they haven't done everything they wanted to do. They think they haven't had enough time. They feel like they've been shortchanged."

The style of Tell the Wolves I'm Home reminded me a lot of J.S. Foer's Everything Is Illuminated; it also shared some of the core themes: a young protagonist, a mystery to be solved, a significant death in the plot. Just as Foer does, Brunt captures the painful honesty, careless wit and intense affection present in adolescents. I enjoyed it so, so much -- for the unique storytelling and big visuals Brunt offers up, as well as the life lessons I garnered right alongside June. It's exciting that this is Brunt's first novel, because I can't wait to read her work in the future.