I’m not sure how to categorise this debut novel. It’s a coming-of-age novel, yet it’s also a love story, a family tragedy, and one about friendship. It’s a wonderful book, very poignant, sad, heart-warming, although I didn’t ‘sob uncontrollably’ as one critic did.
June is 14 years old and is in love with her uncle Finn, a renowned artist. Desperately in love – she makes up any excuse to see him and believes that no one else understands her like he does. June doesn’t fit in at school, she’s a weird child who’s obsessed with medieval times and dresses funnily, and Finn provides her with a special friendship. Yet Finn is dying of AIDS and his last big project is to paint June and her sister, Greta.
The book is set in the ’80s, when AIDS was still a taboo subject, and June’s parents are virulently against Finn’s partner, Toby, believing that he was the cause of Finn’s death by AIDS. When Finn dies, June is devastated and confused. She’s ashamed she loved her uncle in such a deep way and she hates the idea of him having a partner who she didn’t know about.
But when a present arrives in the post from Toby for her, she reaches out to him and a fragile friendship develops between these two lonely people who both loved Finn. As she gets to know Toby, June’s eyes are opened to the fact that she was not the only one who loved Finn and misses him terribly. She slowly learns to trust Toby and to enjoy the friendship he offers her when she most needs it.
June’s relationship with her sister, Greta, worsens as Greta suspects that June has someone in her life that she doesn’t know about. June and Greta used to be very close and in the book, Greta is awful to her, mean and spiteful. Towards the end of the book, their relationship improves and we learn of Greta’s jealousy of June and Finn’s friendship.
There is so much to this book that I can’t sum it up here in a short review. One of the side stories that I so enjoyed was to do with the painting of the two sisters that Finn finished before he died (called Tell the Wolves I’m Home) – it is put in a safe box in the bank for the girls to go and look at when they want to. They each separately go and add little details to it – it’s secretive, poignant, and at the same time dreadful in that you know they are defacing a valuable painting. To them, though, it is a part of their uncle Finn and that’s all that matters.
Brunt stays clear of sentimentality in the book, an admirable feat in that it is a sad story that she tells here, and she depicts June’s adolescent emotions with clarity and accuracy. Some reviewers haven’t liked how Brunt characterised June’s sister, Greta, yet I feel she created a true reflection of a sibling relationship where both children feel isolated in their own self-focused lives.
I loved this book – perhaps if I were a crier, I would have cried. It is tender and beautifully written, it’s not highly intellectual or particularly challenging, but I think it is well worth reading.