Monday, 25 February 2013

book review: tell the wolves i'm home by carol rifka brunt

Tell the Wolves I'm Home by Carol Rifka Brunt
Genre: Historical(ish!) YA
Rating: 9/10
1987. There’s only one person who has ever truly understood fourteen-year-old June Elbus, and that’s her uncle, the renowned painter Finn Weiss. Shy at school and distant from her older sister, June can only be herself in Finn’s company; he is her godfather, confidant, and best friend. So when he dies, far too young, of a mysterious illness her mother can barely speak about, June’s world is turned upside down. But Finn’s death brings a surprise acquaintance into June’s life—someone who will help her to heal, and to question what she thinks she knows about Finn, her family, and even her own heart.

I have a really vivid memory of watching 'The Tree of Life' at the cinema a couple of years ago and desperately wishing that I could trap myself in the experience. Sat in the dark in the company of strangers watching the 'origins of life' sequence with its awesome (in the literal sense) imagery and choral music, I was moved and overwhelmed. I was in the middle of something wonderful. Reading doesn't involve the same sense of sensory immersion; rather than wishing to wrap myself in the experience, the words and feelings invoked by books become embedded under my skin, they become part of me. It's not that they tangibly affect my daily life or drastically change my world view but they leave an indelible mark and add a little more shade to my experiences in the world. Last year was a good year for me reading-wise, I read a couple of books which profoundly moved me in this way: Jeanette Winterson's Written on the Body, Patrick Ness' Choas Walking trilogy and Elizabeth Wein's Code Name Verity. Tell the Wolves I'm Home can most certainly be listed alongside those titles as one of my all-time favourite novels.

I started reading this while sat at a bus-stop the middle of Exeter; by the time my bus arrived I knew that this book was going to devastate me in the best possible way. I knew that I was going to be torn between reading it quickly so that I would know the characters and their stories as soon as possible and trying to savour it as you only get one chance to read something for the first time. I also knew that having finished it I'd want to both shout about it to everyone I knew and to keep it to myself, not wanting the world to tarnish or overanalyse something that moved me so much.

TtWIH is set in 1987 in the early years of the AIDS crisis though this isn't really a book about AIDS but about grief and growing up. Perhaps my favourite thing about this book is that it dealt with an age/time that tends to get forgotten about. In life (as in genres of literature) there is a tendency for us to skip from childhood to young adult, where childhood ends at 11 and adolescence remains the domain of 16 & 17 year olds; June is 14 and in light of her uncle's death, experiences the tension of the transition from one to the other very acutely. June is never naive or ignorant of the world but there's an openness to her character at the beginning of the novel - she's trusting and uses her imagination as a defence against the world. As the story progresses, the doubt of adulthood creeps in and her innate childishness begins to fade.

"Yeah, okay. I'll drop it," I said, and although I held it back with every muscle in my body, what I really wanted to do was cry. Not only because Finn had never told me about this guy, but because there was no way to ask him about it. And until then I don't think I really understood the meaning of gone.

As a 24 year old who still struggles with this, I found Carol Rifka Brunt's writing at its most compelling as she described June's difficulty in coming to terms with the fact that the adults in her life exist beyond their relation to her. At the beginning of the book June's internal world amounts to the time she spends imagining herself in the past in the woods, the external world she primarily understands through her relationships: she is in awe of her sister but finds her menacing and intimidating, her parents represent the cool rationality of adulthood and most of all, she knows herself to be Finn's favourite. Over time June is forced to realise that their characters are not constant or absolute; these keystones to her life are simply people and beyond the roles of sister/parents/uncle they are individuals each with their own feelings and relationships. As June moved from disbelief to panic & sorrow to acceptance my heart ached for her.

At times brutally honest, at others heart-warmingly sweet and always wonderfully observed, Tell the Wolves I'm Home is about loss - loss of loved ones, loss of childhood, loss of certainty - but remains full of love and is never without hope. Carol Rifka Brunt should be considered alongside authors such as Philip Pullman and Patrick Ness whose nuanced and respectful insights into the experiences of young people should be read by all.

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