In interviews, Carol Rifka Brunt stated that the germ of the novel Tell the Wolves I’m Home came to her in an image: a dying uncle in his apartment, painting a final portrait of his niece. For Brunt, this became the origin point for the novel, but she also understood that there were other things there of importance, beyond what she had first seen. In a way, this is also the protagonist-narrator June’s experience throughout the novel (and by extension, the reader’s): learning that the people you are close to and love have outer lives beyond you. They have done things they’re not proud of and that you are ignorant of, and their lives have been shaped by other people in ways you never knew.
Published in 2012 and set in New York during the AIDS crisis in the 1980s, Tell the Wolves I’m Home is told from the point of view of 15-year-old June Elbus, a shy, observant, medieval-era nerd who narrates life before and after her Uncle Finn’s death. An idealist who’s a bit of a romantic (as Finn observes), June finds herself deeply grieving the death of her uncle, the only person she has felt truly close to in recent years. So deep is her affection that it borders on guilt; she feels it is the “wrong” kind of love.
In many ways, the fact that Brunt uses the voice of a young girl as a lens through which to narrate the experience of how death affects a (somewhat disconnected) family is what makes the novel so moving and insightful. Brunt’s prose is simple and unadorned, but feels deeply imbued with June’s personality. June is totally open to the reader; as an awkward teenager with slightly unconventional interests, her internal voice is much more confident than her external personality. She is sure of who she is, and has a slightly off-center take on things, by virtue of both her age and disposition. Her voice is clear and unique, full of intricacies of observation and description, and that’s a large part of what makes the novel a wonderful, warm reading experience. It lends an undeniable optimism to a story which is otherwise so preoccupied with loss.
The bed was warm and ordinary and perfect, and it had been such a long, long day. Probably the longest day of my life. I felt like I had proof that not all days are the same length, not all time has the same weight. Proof that there are worlds and worlds and worlds on top of worlds, if you want them to be there.
We know from the opening lines of Tell the Wolves I’m Home that Finn Weiss is dying of AIDS. This comes as a hard blow to the already fractured relationships within the Elbus family. June and her 16-year-old sister Greta, once inseparable, have now drifted apart. Danielle, their mother, is living with the bitterness of having missed her many opportunities in life; she blames her lost relationship with Finn in adulthood on his partner Toby, the man the Elbus family believes is a “murderer” because he gave Finn AIDS. Much of the novel works to destabilise this notion which Danielle has passed onto her children; June learns that life is hardly so straightforward, and in a way, the novel shows that children can perhaps accept shifts of perception much quicker than adults. The broken relationship between Danielle and Finn, never fully repaired, is played out in the malfunctioning relationship between the two sisters, Greta and June. June is deeply wounded by Greta’s sudden snubs, and did not consider that her closeness to her uncle might exclude Greta. Brunt carries this tension between the sisters throughout the novel along with the fear that they might go the way of Danielle and Finn.
June’s friendship with Toby, with its O. Henry-esque twist, is the most obvious centrepiece of the novel. June comes to the clandestine friendship sulky and angry, ready to blame Toby, but finds it increasingly hard to do so when she understands how much he cared for Finn. As they continue to meet secretly, bound together by their love for Finn, June is increasingly troubled by how Toby was neatly excised from their lives, and how much of Toby she retrospectively sees in Finn. The person she knew and loved so deeply was made of so many others: his partner, his sister, his parents. June worries about the ethics of what she feels; did Finn contracting AIDS bring him closer to her? If so, would she be willing to wish him well again if that meant she’d never have had a proper relationship with him? June is admirable as a character because she doesn’t ignore these things, she confronts them, even though she doesn’t wish to. Though the novel moves by inches as June and Toby become secret friends, and there’s no grand narrative at work here, there are really no lulls in Tell the Wolves I’m Home. Brunt narrates slowly, adding small, shining details as she goes, working outwards from June.
Brunt isn’t as bold as she could be with her portrayal of living with AIDS; ultimately, both the characters with AIDS in the novel die. But the Elbus family does go through a semi-unlearning of the stigma against AIDS through the process of the novel, which might be a valuable lesson for the modern reader. AIDS is not the focus of the novel and Brunt’s portrayal might at times seem idealistic, but this is, for all intents and purposes, not a messy novel. It’s gentle rather than raw, and with the current trend of darker fiction afoot, it can be soothing to go back to novels like this, with its final moments of catharsis and reconciliation. Some books are only for certain people. Some are for most people, and this might just be one of those.
In an interview with BookPage, Brunt referred to Pulitzer-Prize winner Robert Olen Butler’s non-fiction work, From Where You Dream, where he talked about how important a sense of yearning is in a work. By her own admission, Brunt was deeply influenced by this little nugget of wisdom, so much so that yearning seems to pervade every page of Tell the Wolves I’m Home. Yearning for a life lost, yearning for relationships that once meant something, and yearning for a life beyond grief.