Reviewed by Sarah L. Mason
June Elbus, the star of Carol Rifka Brunt’s debut novel, Tell the Wolves I’m Home, is the kind of girl I now wish I was when I was fourteen: daring and honest, reflective and observant, brutally herself. Her sister, Greta, is also the kind of girl I longed to be at fourteen: popular, pretty, smart, social, confident. Following the death of their Uncle Finn, the girls embark on two very different paths to re-discover themselves and re-discover each other. But that’s not the only relationship June encounters. She forms an unlikely friendship with her beloved uncle’s live-in boyfriend. The story follows the development of these two important relationships for June, as well as her relationship with herself. The story, void of the mundane complications of adulthood and full of the charming candor of childhood, lets the reader focus on the heart.
Brunt’s knowledge of New York and the New York suburbs allows for an appealing juxtaposition of the exciting city life and the more pedestrian lives of tax professionals (June’s parents’ profession) in the ‘burbs. Conveyed with an adult eye for detail and understanding, but only exposing the innermost thoughts of someone who is really still a child, Brunt displays a true talent for showing the story, not telling.
The heartbeat of the story relies on June’s grief surrounding her uncle. Brunt skillfully peppers the journey with rewarding flashbacks that illuminate her relationship with her uncle, the type of person you can’t help but love:
“Finn held my hand and we walked through the balmy city together. I knew my palm was sweating, but Finn didn’t say anything about it. If there was something or someone we wanted the other to see, we’d give a squeeze. Not too hard, just enough so we knew to look. We’d been doing that as long as I could remember. Usually it was Finn squeezing my hand, because he always saw things first… But that night there were so many crazy people around that we kept squeezing at the same time, our hands clenched together, palms pressed tight.”
The simple but insightful prose has the power to bring tears to the reader’s eye, and the sweetness of June’s love for Finn can break hearts. Brunt has a gift for moments of stark truths told in the language of a young person, such as, “You could try to believe what you wanted, but it never worked. Your brain and your heart decided what you were going to believe and that was that. Whether you liked it or not.”
I was given the advice as a writer that no one wants to hear the story of a child, that no adult can relate to the story of a non-adult person because the adult will not care and will perhaps find it boring. Brunt’s account of June’s coming-of-age story proved to me that rule was simply made to be broken. In a beautifully written and refreshingly insightful story that can only be told effectively from the perspective of a young person, she reveals the mechanics of an unlikely but oh-so-important relationship and highlights the complicated momentum that can move relationships forward. She tells the stories of bonds between people who need one another to heal their own hearts.
The synopsis calls the novel a “striking literary debut,” and I cannot think of a more apt phrase to describe it. Brunt skillfully took me back to a time in life where everything held the weight of the world, and she made me remember what it felt like to miss someone and to be misunderstood. She brought me to a very real but very forgotten time and turned on the lights again.
Tell the Wolves I’m Home: (The Dial Press, Hardcover, 355 pp, $25.00)