“Because maybe I don’t want to leave the planet invisible. Maybe I need at least one person to remember something about me.”
Let me begin by saying that this is one of those books that, even if you don’t think the subject matter is to your liking, you need to read it. It is one of the greatest contemporary novels I’ve read.
Carol Rifka Brunt’s debut novel, Tell the Wolves I’m Home, was one that slipped past us at the bookstore. Someone ordered it in hardcover (I think it must have been in a magazine), but we never carried it in the store. I think it must have been one that just didn’t really fit our town’s reading groups, but I don’t know how that’s possible.
It’s 1987 and Finn is dying of AIDS. Finn happens to be the narrator June’s best friend, uncle, and godfather, as well as a famous artist. Already a misfit because of her love of the past and all things Finn-related, the loss of her uncle devastates June and she struggles to find balance with her family. Just before his death, Finn completes a portrait of June and Greta, which no one in the family except June seems to appreciate; the painting is eventually shoved into a safe deposit box where the girls can visit (and there’s so much more to that story alone).
At Finn’s funeral, June notices a thin man hanging around and is informed that he is the man who murdered Finn. When the man, named Toby, delivers a request that June meet with him, she hesitantly does, and this prompts their strange almost-friendship to take root. Toby now lives alone in Finn’s apartment and, over the course of the novel, June comes to discover that Finn’s apartment, the details of which she loved so much, is not simply Finn’s and that her uncle lived a life which she could never have known. As June and Toby attempt to cope with their shattered world, they find that Finn, even when he is not physically present, is working his magic to bring them together.
I swear to you, I wept throughout this book. And because there’s so much to the story and I don’t want to give it all away, here are the reasons why you should read it with not tons of spoilage.
- It is BEAUTIFUL. Because Finn is an artist and our narrator is sensitive to beauty, the descriptions are wonderful and the entire feel of the novel is just… wow.
- June as a narrator is very likable. She’s the weird younger sister who doesn’t quite fit in and she attaches herself to Finn because he understands her. (And don’t even get me started on her and Toby. There are some lines in their conversations that made me go from totally dry-eyed to sobbing.) She reminds me a bit of Scout from TKM in that her voice is innocent (verging oftentimes on naive), but she notices things. And when you read between the lines… wow.
- Finn and Toby’s relationship, which is revealed through June’s friendship with Toby, is tragic and wonderful and it’s kind of Shakespearean in that you know it’s going to end badly, but you want to believe that it won’t.
- Some of the dialogue in this book is, like, so heartwrenching you just don’t even want to deal with it. But you want to keep reading so you do even though the tears you’ve leaked between quotation marks make it difficult to go on.
- The portrait of June and Greta is a beautiful, beautiful, beautiful piece that keeps coming up and at the end…
Okay, I can’t even think of more things to say about this because you just have to read it. I think my exact reaction at the end of it (after I’d sniffled and snuffled and wiped my eyes and sobbed a little and tried it all again) was, “F***.” Because I was just so emotionally drained that I couldn’t deal with anything.
And you know what? Totally worth it.
Because here’s the thing: it’s about AIDS, it’s about America in the 1980s, it’s a sensitive subject, it deals with some other issues (like love and alcoholism and sibling relationships), it’s touchy. Generally, I try to avoid touchy subjects in my recreational reading. I don’t like preaching about what I should or should not believe. I don’t like being told how I should feel or react. But the beauty in Brunt’s work is that you don’t need preaching. You get emotions so pure and so deep that you understand the message without needing explicit statements. You don’t need to be told how difficult the world was (or still is) because you see it in Toby’s reaction to his partner’s death, in Greta’s spiral when the pressure builds, in June as she comes to terms with herself as a young woman.
You get a novel as beautiful as the art that Finn creates, and there is nothing better than the wringing of your soul at the end of it all.
So if you’re not completely depressed at the end of this review (or if I haven’t scared you off because you don’t feel like sitting down to complete a novel in one sitting while you weep incessantly into your sleeve while you turn pages), please check it out at your local independent bookstore. I’d offer to loan you my copy, but it’s currently taking up residence beside Doug Dorst’s S and my complete works of Jane Austen – so Tell the Wolves I’m Home is in some pretty good company.