In the sixth and last of our ‘Coming of Age’ series, Annette Ong reviews Carol Rifka Brunt’s 2012 novel ‘Tell The Wolves I’m Home’.
“You could try to believe what you wanted, but it never worked. Your brain and heart decided what you were going to believe and that was that. Whether you liked it or not.”
Published in 2012, Tell the Wolves I’m Home is the first novel from American writer Carol Rifka Brunt. Although contemporary, it is set in 1980’s New York and deals with the impact of AIDS at a time when it was a lesser-known illness.
As befits the coming-of-age genre, the novel follows 14-year-old June Elbus as she navigates her way through adolescence and some very adult issues. June is a typical misfit teenager; she’s in love with the medieval period, spends hours traipsing through the woods on her own, has few friends and has difficulty fitting in. She’s also in love with her Uncle Finn.
A renowned artist living in New York City, Finn Weiss lives a truly Bohemian life; he paints, he visits galleries and museums, walking the streets at all hours of the day and night. He’s one of the lucky ones who are able to subsist off their art. June visits him regularly and they go on city adventures together. He is the sole person who can make June feel comfortable about being “different” from others her own age.
June lives with her accountant parents (her mother is Finn’s sister) and Greta, her older sister. The story begins with June, Greta and their mother having to travel to see Finn every weekend as he is painting the girls’ portrait. It is the last painting Finn will ever do before his death; reed-thin, with hollowed eyes and a raspy voice, he is a shadow of his former vibrant self. Finn has AIDS – an illness that the Eighties was unable to deal with, due to a severe lack of medical know-how and general awareness. Rifka Brunt has done an incredible job at dealing with the ill-informed messages that filtered through communities, and brilliantly highlights the pervasive prejudice and fear bred from inadequate knowledge of the disease.
Finn’s death brings June to her knees in grief. Becoming increasingly introverted, she escapes to the woods more often. Her fractured relationship with her sister Greta is also on her mind. She misses Finn and yearns for his company and counsel. Upset and confused, Finn’s death uncovers a past she knew little about, and secrets become exposed upon arrival of a stranger.
Toby, a man June has never met before but remembers seeing at Finn’s funeral, makes contact and requests to see her. Without informing her family, June meets with him and spends subsequent weekends visiting him in the city. Toby (Finn’s long-term partner) strikes up a friendship with June and together they help each other heal with their stories of the man they both dearly loved.
A well-written and beautifully executed tale, Tell the Wolves I’m Home is a touching coming-of-age story about painfully discovering the truth and the accompanying freedom that follows.