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Thursday, April 10, 2014

‘Tell the Wolves I’m Home’ by Carol Rifka Brunt

From the BLURB:

There's only one person who has ever truly understood fourteen-year-old June Elbus, and that's her uncle, the renowned painter, Finn Weiss. Shy at school and distant from her once inseparable older sister, June can only be herself in Finn's company; he is her godfather, confidant, and best friend. So when he dies far too young of a mysterious illness that June's mother can barely bring herself to discuss, June's world is turned upside down.

At the funeral, she notices a strange man lingering just beyond the crowd, and a few days later, June receives a package in the mail. Inside is a beautiful teapot she recognizes from Finn's apartment, and a note from Toby, the stranger, asking for an opportunity to meet.

As the two begin to spend time together, June realises she's not the only one who misses Finn, and if she can bring herself to trust this unexpected friend, he might just be the one she needs the most.

Tell the Wolves I'm Home is a tender story of love lost and found, an unforgettable portrait of the way compassion can make us whole again.

“I’d like to paint a portrait,” he said. “Of you. You and Greta together.” 
“Just because. Because you’re at the right age for a portrait and I haven’t painted one in a very long time.” Finn tilted his head and squinted one eye at the statue. 
“Thirteen is the right age for a portrait?” 
“Of course it is,” he said, turning his squinted eye on me. “It’s the moment right before you slip away into the rest of your life.” 
“Then what about Greta?” 
Finn laughed. “Well, I’ll have to try and catch her before she slips away completely.”

‘Tell the Wolves I’m Home’ was the 2012 novel by Carol Rifka Brunt, which won the 2013 ALA Alex Award as a book written for adults that has special appeal to young adults. 

I’ve known for a while now that I would love this book. But I also knew that it would hurt me. I knew from the first line … 

My sister Greta and I were having our portrait painted by our Uncle Finn that afternoon because he knew he was dying. 

… Sure enough, I was crying my eyes out by the last. 

I think I waited so long (too long) to finally read this book because I knew it would hurt. I had to wait until I was in the right reading head-space and willing to let my heart be offered up for bruising. 

Our narrator is June Elbus – fourteen in 1986 when Finn starts painting the portrait, and fifteen when she recounts this story after his death and the events that followed. June is a quiet girl who has a romantic fascination with the past. One of her favourite places in the world are the Cloisters in Upper Manhattan, where Finn took her for weekly visits, and she liked to pretend they were back in medieval Europe. After a trip to the renaissance fair, June has ambitions of being a falconer and she loves nothing more than wandering around the woods behind her school and imagining herself in another time. 

June herself says she isn’t one to need many friends, and for a long time she was content to have her big sister as her best friend. But Greta is sixteen now, and secretly two years ahead in high school, in recent years she has turned against June and they’re now more like enemies living in close-quarters. Her uncle Finn was really her only friend, and after his death she feels more alone and unloved than ever … until she meets Toby, someone else who’s missing Finn and struggling in his absence. 

Described as Finn’s “special friend” and told not to talk about him by her family (who are convinced he murdered Finn, by infecting him with AIDS) in Toby, June has found someone with fresh Finn stories to tide her over and act as a tentative connection to her uncle. Someone who can maybe start quenching the questions she has about the Finn she thought she knew so well, until she realised how little she was allowed to know about him…

I watched him sitting there with cards up his sleeve. Decks and decks of surprise cards he could slide out whenever he wanted to. Stories of him and Finn I’d never heard. Not like me. My deck was thin. Worn out from shuffling over and over in my head. My Finn stories were dull and plain. Small and stupid. 

As Finn’s story unfolds for June, she begins to realise how big a part Toby played in it … that he was Finn’s partner for nine years, and the uncle she loved was made up of Toby and his love for this man; quirks and tricks and guitar-picks. June also starts to realise the reason she never met Toby before now, the reason she wasn’t allowed to know about him, was mired in family hurt and secrecy, jealousy and misplaced longing. 

I want to stress that I felt no homophobia on the part of June and Greta’s mother in keeping Toby and Finn’s relationship away from them. It’s actually much more complex than that, and beautifully mirrored through Greta and June’s own fraught sibling relationship. And though homophobia was not a driving force of this book, ignorance is certainly explored and has a lot to answer for. 

It’s set in 1987, right at the turning point for AIDS education and change. This is after Rock Hudson’s death in 1985, the first public figure to have died of the disease. 1987 was the year that a groundbreaking moment for changing public perception was seeing Princess Diana shake the hand of an AIDS patient while visiting at a hospital. Before then, people were driven by fear, urban myth and prejudicial ignorance that AIDS was relegated to the gay community and could be transmitted by even skin-to-skin contact. Carol Rifka Brunt beautifully evokes the 80’s time period in clothing and pop-culture, but it’s in people’s mindsets that the author really makes the time-period work for the story. The way people still whisper about AIDS (or call it ‘the AIDS’), at one point Greta mentions that a radio station has stopped playing George Michael’s “I Want Your Sex” for fear that it was promoting promiscuity. June herself embarrassingly admits fearing a kiss from her uncle, not knowing if she can catch AIDS that way but being frustrated with herself for even thinking such things of Finn.

“I suppose I’m in that very small group of people who are not waiting for their own story to unfold. If my life was a film, I’d have walked out by now.” 

This is a book of love, above all else. It’s about finding, accepting and losing love – and acknowledging that it’s rarely easy or freely given. Brunt has filled this book with beautifully tangled relationships – those that are relatable, like Greta and June’s fractured friendship as sisters – to those that are slightly preposterous, but read beautifully, like that of June and Toby. Here is a grown man connecting with his deceased lover’s niece – it sounds absurd, but Brunt writes these two with infinite tenderness and so much to gain from one another. I also loved the relationship of Toby and Finn, fragmented as we read it second-hand from June via Toby – they were truly an epic love story. 

I also admire that Finn was such a strong presence in this book, even though he’s dead throughout. He’s already gone when June starts recounting the story, and we only get to know him through the memories she and Toby share with one another – it’s a beautiful way that Brunt offers up these small glimpses of this departed character, to make readers fall in love with him and feel his absence all the more keenly in the story just as these characters do. I would also like to recommend that you visit Carol Rifka Brunt's website and look at the artwork that inspired this book. 

Brunt is such a beautiful, tender writer – sometimes I wished I could just lie down on the page alongside these beautiful words and passages; 

Not the way they were, not clumsy and thick, but more like shadows. Like small eclipsed moons, floating over my heart.

I didn’t want to leave this story and these characters, and I miss them already now that I’m done. ‘Tell the Wolves I’m Home’ now joins that illustrious list of books that I feel better for having read; it makes you see the world a little differently, opens you up to hurt and heavy-heart, but also feeds you beautiful words and gifts you the world as seen through the eyes of the brave and thoughtful June Elbus. This book is a gift.


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