Book Review: Tell the Wolves I’m Home

03Feb13
image courtesy of oprah.com, all rights reserved to same

image courtesy of oprah.com, all rights reserved to same

Title: Tell the Wolves I’m Home

Author: Carol Rifka Brunt

Genre: Literary fiction

Publisher: Dial/Random House

Length: 355 pages

Library: Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh–Main

Challenge: 2013 Literary Exploration Challenge. Level = insane, Category = Literary fiction

Summary: An awkward teenager copes with her beloved uncle’s death while trying to determine her place in the family, as well as the world at large.

Analysis

Brunt ups the ante on the “making sense of death” theme in this quietly touching book about grief, confusion, family, and fitting in. Julia loves two things: the Middle Ages, and her Uncle Finn (the former being a direct result of the latter’s influence). When Finn, a famous painter, dies from AIDS-related complications, Julia is left alone to cope with both her strong feelings and the tidal wave of questions nobody wants to answer. Brunt’s decision to set the novel in the early 1980s, when little was known about AIDS and HIV, adds a layer of sadness and confusion to Julia’s plight: not only is the most important adult in her life gone forever, but the circumstances around it are deemed inappropriate for discussion, mostly because the adults don’t really understand it, so how can they comfort the kids?

And so, the characters spend most of the novel bumbling around each other, trying to communicate, and failing miserably. Greta, Julia’s older sister, has always envied Julia’s relationship with Finn, which leads her to tease and torment the very person from whom she wishes to receive comfort. Julia’s mother, a frustrated artist turned tax accountant, is too busy dealing with her own mass of seething feelings about Finn (and art) to be of any real assistance besides making endless batches of stew in her Crock-pot. Julia’s dad seems the least real character of all, a laughing, jokey, paper cut-out of a fellow who occasionally says fatherly things, and seems to be there only for show. Julia, whose point of view carries the day, tries to cope by striking up a secret friendship with Finn’s lover, who is also HIV-positive, hoping to hang on to some aspect of the past, even though her mistrust–and envy–of Tom make it difficult.

It’s a tough task, winding up a bunch of messed-up characters, then letting them bumble around into each other. It has to be deliberate while seeming artless, much like Finn’s painting, from which the novel derives its name. The characters are lost at sea, unable to communicate, but the painting speaks volumes. The problem is that nobody seems to understand it. They do, however, understand its function, and one of the novel’s most brilliant strokes–if you’ll pardon the pun–is the way the characters use it to convey messages to each other, struggling to be heard and understood through gesture rather than sound.

The most poignant part of the novel for me was watching Julia and Greta find their way back to each other, not recapturing what they had as children, but building something new as young adults. The parents may remain bumbling and confused to the very end–with a glimmer of hope, perhaps, for the girls’ mother–but the children learn and grow, and it is Brunt’s recognition of this fact–that things do, indeed, “get better,”  even if we don’t always see how on the daily–that makes the novel worth checking out. It’s sad without crossing the line into pathos, realistic without being didactic/tiresome, and, at times, hilarious while breaking your heart. Wolves cannot give you a feel-good ending, but it can give you hope, something novels of greater literary skill on the same theme cannot claim.

Recommended for: Older teens and adults who like teen fiction, as this novel exists somewhere on that hazy borderline of both. Readers who remember how the 80s actually were. People who are interested in art. Adults who felt/feel like misfits. Anyone who has ever lost a friend, had a sister, or stifled a dream.

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2 Responses to “Book Review: Tell the Wolves I’m Home”

  1. Sounds like an interesting book

    • It is! I’m a bit taken with stories about art, lately, though. And rather fond of the 80s. So I could be biased. 🙂


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