368 pages, The Dial Press
Review by J. S. Colley
One of the themes in Tell the Wolves I’m Home is the relationship between sisters, so it’s appropriate my sister recommended this book to me. I can see why she was drawn to it. She, like one of the characters in the novel, is an artist.
The story is set in the 1980s. The coming-of-age narrator, June, is dealing with the illness (AIDS) and subsequent death of her much-loved maternal uncle, Finn, who is a famous artist. Knowing he is dying, Finn sets out to paint a portrait of June, his goddaughter, and her sister, Greta.
I really wanted to love this book, and I almost did. The quality of the writing is high, the narrator's voice original, the plot interesting, and I loved the idea that the painting almost became another character and was used as a metaphor; but, thing is, sometimes a reader has a visceral reaction—good or bad—toward the characters. It is purely subjective. While I can appreciate a novel with a flawed hero, or flawed characters, these characters felt too contrived, their reaction too conveniently molded to fit the plot. And the story slowed a bit in the middle, the narrator seemingly going through the same motion over and over.
I’m not sure if the author wanted this book to be about AIDS, or about relationships. I decided AIDS was used as a backdrop for a story about family dysfunction, but, in these post fear-of-AIDS times, the actions and feelings of the narrator seemed like Monday night quarterbacking. We see an abrupt change of attitude even within the time constrains of the novel—perhaps a year? The reader is supposed to believe fourteen year-old June—who at one point is mortified that she might have to kiss her AIDS-ridden Uncle Finn (even though she’s secretly in love with him) when her sister holds mistletoe over his head—suddenly has no qualms at all about letting tears from an AIDS victim fall in her eyes and mouth. This is enlightened behavior, indeed, but is it realistic during the time period?
I also found it hard to believe Greta, June’s older sister, is so traumatized by June’s lack of attention she becomes as despondent and self-destructive as she does. I understand she has other issues—pressure to succeed—but these aren’t effectively explored—at least not for me. There were a few other similar issues, but if I go into them then I’ll have to give a spoiler alert.
I don’t want to discourage people from reading the book; I think it is worthy. And, trust me, if I could write a novel half as good I’d be happy for the rest of my life. As I said, a reader’s reaction to characters is purely subjective. Many readers love it, and I can understand why. There are many poignant moments. It was just hard, at times, for me to suspend my disbelief.
Give Tell the Wolves I'm Home a read and see what you think. Maybe I’m just WAY over thinking it.