Sunday, 31 March 2013

Tell the Wolves I'm Home by Carol Rifka Brunt: Book Review

What to drink 

Spiced mulled cider

Not a modern cocktail but one evoking centuries past and autumn woods where wolves may indeed have howled. Fitting for a book whose themes may seem contemporary but really come down to universal ideas of love, guilt and loss. Warming and rich but with a tart and exotic cardamom and cloves edge.

What's what

Usually I dispense with a synopsis in favour of jumping straight in to the proper business of some literary slagging. (I wouldn’t characterise what goes on in this ‘ere blog as something as grandiose as literary criticism) But not this time. Why is it so much harder to write about perfection? 

Tell the Wolves I’m Home is about June, a misfit teenager in the dark ages known as 80s America. Her beloved uncle Finn has just died of AIDS and she spends much of her time wandering the woods imagining she lives in medieval England rather than suburban USA, with a bitchy sister and distant parents.

Ostensibly the book is about June and her family attempting to deal with the aftermath of Finn’s death, and his legacy to them - a portrait of June and her sister Greta.

But as with all great works of art, both the portrait and the novel are about so much more. There is a plot and lots of things do happen - but Tell the Wolves I’m Home really comes down to character.

“That’s what I want for you,” he said. “I want you to know only the very best people.” That’s when I broke down and cried, because I already knew the very best people. Finn was the very best person I knew. pg 57

It’s such a relief to read a book with characters you actually care about. There is nothing worse than committing to 400 pages with someone and discovering after 200 you don’t give a toss whether they live or die. It’s probably not completely fair to describe June as a misfit, as she is unutterably awesome - self-aware and courageous. Brunt gives her character space to develop as the novel goes on and she learns more about herself and her place in the world.

An important part of the book was June’s relationship with Greta. This part of the novel tore me to shreds almost as much as the death and debilitating illness within the book. It’s all so painfully real - the descriptions of the games the girls used to play as children and their previous closeness, followed by the distance between them as teenagers. This is achingly counterpointed by the relationship between Finn and June’s mother, who never recovered the friendship they once had.

"The sun kept on with its slipping away, and I thought how many small good things in the world might be resting on the shoulders of something terrible. "pg 237

At some points I did wish that Greta was the main character. I was desperate to know what was going on in her obviously miserable heart, and although we found out eventually, it didn’t feel like enough! It’s a proof of the writer’s skill that Greta was no incidental secondary character but vividly drawn and more realistic for her every unknowable.

Which brings me to Toby. Oh Toby! The first clue this book was going to break my heart was the letter from Finn to June: ‘Take care of Toby. He has nobody.’ Finn’s ex-partner, he is completely estranged from June’s family at the start of the novel. Of course he won me over completely by getting June drunk on the fabulous sounding Volcano bowls. What’s not to love?

"My mother gave me a disappointed look. Then I gave her one back. Mine was for everything, not just the sandwich." pg 236

This is of course a coming of age book but one which felt refreshingly different. Sometimes growing up is about getting drunk with the most unsuitable people and when it comes to the wolves; 
"You may as well tell them where you live, because they’ll find you anyway. They always do."
Pg 328


Heartbreaking and beautifully written. One to sob over alone with a glass of wine then force upon every member of your book group because it’s just that good.

On the big screen

This could be a wonderful film. It’s an extremely visual book, and so many scenes would translate directly into amazing set pieces. Definitely one with more of an indie vibe, but I would hate to see the melodrama and emotion downplayed. This deserves a soaring score and some sweeping outdoor cinematography.


Highbrow for sure! Ok, maybe it’s not Angels in America but the writing is incredible and the melodrama does not in the slightest detract from the fact that this is a book about Serious Subjects.