A success for my pot of books – for Tell The Wolves I’m Home has been languishing on my “sure I want to read that, I’ll get to it next… well, maybe the one after that…” shelf for months.
June’s Uncle Finn is the only person in the world who truly understands her, and he’s dying of AIDs. Before he goes, he paints a portrait of Jane and her sister Greta, his final present to them, called Tell The Wolves I’m Home. At the funeral, there’s a man who June has never seen before. When she points him out, her mother looks disgusted that the “murderer” of Finn has dared to show up. And then a few days later, a present arrives for June. A teapot that she recognises from Uncle Finn’s apartment, accompanied by a letter from the man at the funeral. “Will you meet me?”
It’s a delicate space in history to place a coming of age story — the AIDs epidemic. And this novel is a coming of age story, not a drama about the spread of HIV or anything about that moment in time. In some ways, it’s quite a truthful perspective to come from; a world of suburbia in which AIDs is something mentioned on TV, the men who have it are below contempt, and nothing much is thought about it. The parents treatment of Toby – Finn’s lover – is heartbreaking; they reject him out of hand as the man that ‘killed Finn’ and it’s later revealed that he is a stranger to June only because her mother has demanded that he not be part of their lives.
June’s slowly developing relationship with Toby is adroitly handled, narrowly avoiding the indie film trap of having her thaw either too quickly or remain spiky too long. Brunt has a subtle hand at painting out the jealousies she experiences daily – moments when she feels that the specialness of her bond with her uncle can be impacted on even by the knowledge that others have memories of him that she does not – that is fuelled by a well-handled fire of actual feelings she holds for him. It’s a mark of restraint that that’s handled expertly without shying away, but also without hammering home for effect; like the rest of the novel, it’s played with tact and empathy.
Beyond her deepening, secret friendship with Toby, the novel is driven by her relationship with her sister Greta, who is fiercely jealous of June’s relationship with Finn (and then Toby) without June ever once being able to see this. Her slow deterioration happens in small drips, glimpsed by June, and in many ways this story is more potent than the main plot; when it comes to the conclusion, it was the tragedy and joy of their story that I felt, whilst the ending of Toby’s plot was numbly emotional without ever quite touching me.
Overall, a strong novel that takes a coming of age story into a direction I’ve never really encountered before. The characters–barring June’s father–never once feel like cardboard cut-outs being jerked around a stage, which is always the mark of a strong writer, but whilst the novel was touching, it was never moving on a grand scale, which somehow I felt it should have been. The oddest thing being that, whilst I was reading it, I was enjoying it, and it’s only when I’ve come to write this review that I’m left with a sense of not being entirely satisfied. To err to a recommendation however, I do think it’s the kind of book that could become a personal favourite for many. Especially if you loved other similar books, like The Borrower and When God Was A Rabbit.