An extraordinary debut

Tell the Wolves I’m Home ★ ★ ★ ★ ★
Carol Rifka Brunt
Random House, 2012

The sun kept on with its slipping away, and I thought how many small good things in the world might be resting on the shoulders of something terrible. ~Tell the Wolves I’m Home

tell the wolvesI don’t know how to write a review for this book. I’ve made a few false starts already. It’s always SO HARD to review the exceptional, the beautiful, the sincere and heartfelt. When what you’ve just read humbles you, when it so keenly reminds you of the raw power of storytelling — of why we read in the first place — it can leave you floundering without any words to describe the experience (a cruel irony if there ever was one).

I have no words, or I feel like I don’t have enough, or know the right ones to use to capture the intensity and sweetness of Tell the Wolves I’m Home. Like Mozart’s Requiem, it’s meant to be experienced. It’s the really funny joke that “you had to be there” to find funny at all.

I can tell you it’s a coming of age story that hits all the right notes regarding that excruciating, confusing transition between childhood and adulthood, from innocence to innocence lost. June is fourteen and bright and funny and loveable, but also fierce and stubborn and selfish. She’s prideful and lacks confidence, while at the same time marches to the beat of her own romantic drum. She’s learning to love, not just perfection, but flaws and failures — discovering that real beauty, real love, has scars and history, mistakes and disappointments.

There is so much character in this story — not just June, but her sister Greta, their beloved uncle Finn, and his beloved Toby. Each character is whole with lives and souls to call their own. Their voices are distinct, their points of view crystalline and unique. It makes you care, it makes you feel and cry, and sigh and laugh out loud.

There’s also a sense of place — a time really — that’s so vivid it acts as a powerful subtext to the entire novel. June is growing up in the 1980’s while her uncle is dying from AIDS. We remember the music, the clothes, the movies and that makes us smile. But then we remember the ignorance and fear, the prejudice and cruelty — as much a part of the disease as its auto-immune deficiency — and we weep. Toby and Finn, with genuine humanity, symbolize the tragic loss of so many young men in the early days of AIDS, before anyone really understood what was happening, before anyone had the courage to do anything about it when they finally knew exactly what was happening.

Ultimately, this book is about profound loss and the giant grief that accompanies it. It’s about finding yourself in that loss, and then finding your way through it. If you’ve been there, you know. There are no shortcuts. It is what it is and it’s you and it. But if we’re lucky, if we’re really lucky, there will be someone beside us to hold our hand, to pull us in, to catch our tears, to guide us back to the land of the living.

This is an emotional story, but it is in no way maudlin or melodramatic. It could be that book, that smacks of manipulation and exploits tragedy for the big win. Tell the Wolves I’m Home is not that book. It is the very opposite of that book. I’m going to end this review with a Hemingway quote that I would like to dedicate to June and Greta and Finn and Toby. “The world breaks everyone and afterward many are strong in the broken places.”

This review also appears on Goodreads.

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