In one section of Carol Rifka Brunt’s debut novel, Tell The Wolves I’m Home, a character talks about how being diagnosed with AIDS made him feel free to live his life however he wanted. It’s a cliché that death makes people value life, but Tell The Wolves I’m Home makes it feel sincere. The novel provides an earnest look at the burdens of choice and the fear of missed opportunities, all while weaving a beautiful portrait of the complicated relationships between family members.
Set in 1987, the novel is narrated by June, a socially awkward 14-year-old who dreams of living in the Middle Ages. When her uncle and best friend Finn dies of AIDS, he leaves her a message asking her to take care of his longtime partner Toby, whom June’s family blames for Finn’s illness. As she first cautiously, then enthusiastically, tries to fulfill Finn’s wishes, June discovers complicated parts of her family history that she’d rather not have learned.
Brunt weaves a terrific coming-of-age story, painting a vibrant picture of June’s dreams and insecurities as she teeters on the border between childhood and maturity. A simple scene where she asks her mother to make her a sandwich and is told she’s old enough to do it herself shows the heavy blow of a child first being truly disappointed in her parent. The complexity of the relationship between June and her older sister Greta provides the book’s richest material: Once best friends, their interactions are now based on cruelty and avoidance. As Greta prepares to leave for college, Brunt provides touching looks back at what she and June were once like, the connection they still share, and what drove them apart. Childhood games of make-believe play a major role in their past and June’s present, and a small plotline involving a fellow student trying to get June to play Dungeons & Dragons shows Brunt has a deep insight into the game and why people play it, the kind of observation rarely found in mainstream fiction.
The book’s only real weakness comes when June’s narrative changes from the present to some future version of herself looking back on the events with lines like “It came straight from my heart and out of my mouth, and although it’s as true as anything, I’ve spent a lot of time wishing I hadn’t said it.” These interludes break up the action by describing June’s emotions, even though Brunt’s writing already does a good job of showing them. Her maudlin musings come particularly heavily at the end, and reduce the impact of the bittersweet climax. But the impact of the rest of Brunt’s novel makes this a striking first outing.