Turns out that the author is American but living in England and thus didn't tour here in the States at all to promote her book. Brunt lived for a while in my little part of the world, and thus my store sold quite a few copies when it was released in paperback, and as the timing would have it, she is going to be visiting my little part of the world next month. She emailed me just a couple of days after I had finished reading the book, and if that isn't synchronicity, then I don't know what is!
Anyway, the book: June Elbus narrates this first person, coming of age tale in upstate New York in the 1980s, but this is no YA-style first person narrative of which I have grown increasingly weary. No, think more of Scout in To Kill a Mockingbird. June feels like an outsider: her parents are both accountants and for much of the year don't have time for anything but preparing other peoples' taxes; her older sister Greta is smart, beautiful, and an extremely talented actress; she has no close friends. Only her godfather and uncle, Finn, understands her and ushers her through her very awkward adolescence. He lives in New York City and is her best friend, showing her fascinating places and encouraging her dreams of being a medieval-style falconer.
Which is why she feels all the more betrayed to learn, after Finn dies of AIDS, that a man named Toby was an important part of Finn's life, too--perhaps even more important to Finn that she was. The rest of June's family can only acknowledge Toby's existence enough to blame him for "murdering" Finn, but June feels both curiosity and pity for the man when her family forces him to leave his lover's funeral. A few weeks later, she receives a package in the mail from Toby containing a rare Russian teapot that Finn always used for special occasions with June...and a letter asking June if she would meet Toby and share stories about Finn.
She ignores the letter at first, but eventually she changes her mind and starts making plans to see Toby, who is charming and clueless and just as adrift in a sea of loss as June is. Little by little, aspects of Finn that were only known to one or the other become shared knowledge. Toby clearly has no idea what constitutes an appropriate pastime for his fourteen year old companion, but June thrills to the illicit cigarette smoking, occasional drinking, and long walks through lower Manhattan.
Which is just as well, because the situation at home disintegrates a little bit more, week by week. A dark and bitter rift separates Greta and June where once they were best friends, Greta's destructive urges spiral out of control, and June doesn't know which adults in her life are worthy of her trust. Soon, the two separate halves of June's life meet in a perilous way, and something has to give: will June choose the normalcy of her home life over the unpredictable pleasures of her secret time with Toby?
Along the way there are two significant subplots: Finn's an artist revered by the 1980s art scene, but until a photographic reproduction of mysterious portrait featuring his two nieces shows up posthumously, critics believed he had stopped painting. What the unveiling of this painting does to the family, particularly June and Greta, is a catalyst for the novel's denouement. Similarly, along the way we learn that Finn and his sister (the girls' mother) both wanted to be artists growing up, but whereas Finn struck out on his own to see the world at a young age, the sister played it safe and stayed behind. The mother's adult regrets over her youthful choices to play things safe twisted up with her own self-pity into something truly ugly by the time Finn came back into her life, which she used to effectively manipulate Finn and her children.
This is a fine novel that for some reason puts me in mind of To Kill a Mockingbird (a book I loved) and The Catcher in the Rye (a book I loathed because it felt gratuitously whiny), but there's a classic feel to Tell the Wolves I'm Home that makes shelving it with those other towers of coming of age classics a pretty reasonable thing to do. I feel that the author must have admired both of those books enormously and that shades of them come through, in homage, in her own novel.
Here are some passages that demonstrate pretty well what it's like to be in June's narrative mind:
Even though I don't believe in God, last year I convinced my mother to let me join the Catholic church choir in our town just so I could sing the Mozart Kyrie at Easter. I can't even really sing, but the thing is, if you close your eyes when you sing in Latin, and if you stand right at the back so our can keep one hand against the cold stone wall of the church, you can pretend you're in the Middle Ages. That's why I did it. That's what I was in it for.
It's hard to say exactly when we stopped being best friends, when we stopped even resembling two girls who were sisters. Greta went to high school and I was still in middle school. Greta had new friends and I started having Finn. Greta got prettier and I got. . . weirder. I don't know. None of those things should have mattered, but I guess they did. I guess they were like water. Soft and harmless until enough time went by. Then all of a sudden you found yourself with the Grand Canyon on your hands.
I looked at Toby's shoulders in front of me and I started to feel glad that he was with me. Not that it seemed like Toby would be much help if a real psychopath was waiting in the basement, but, still, it felt better knowingI'd be hacked to death with somebody else instead of all by myself.
Tell the Wolves I'm Home by Carol Rifka Brunt is available in both paperback and hardcover. I actually bought a copy for myself after selling so many copies of it in the bookstore because I was curious about it. I'm glad that I did.
NB: On 14 September, I've edited this post to add links to some other bloggers' reviews of this book. So don't just take my word for this one, take theirs, too! (You should check out those links anyway because they are nifty book bloggers.) If I follow you and you've written a review of this book you'd like me to link to, just leave me a comment and I will.
Sarah Says Read, What Red Read, The Terrible Desire, Devouring Texts, Comma Enthusiast, and Reading the Bricks, who, incidentally, read this before the rest of us did.