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Writing in first person is always tricky, but writing from the perspective of a young adult is particularly challenging. This point of view is often used in coming of age novels, which are among my favorite types of books to read. Nothing breaks the suspension of disbelief like an unreliable narrator, though. When you begin to hear the voice of the adult author instead of the voice of a young adult, it’s jolting and disappointing. But, when an author really captures the thoughts, mannerisms, and beliefs of a character, it is truly first class first person.
I recently finished the loveliest novel—probably one of my favorites of the year—Tell the Wolves I’m Home by Carol Rifka Brunt. Set in 1987, the narrator is 14 year-old June Elbus. Awkward, reserved, and bookish, June’s closest friend and confidant is her uncle and godfather, the renowned painter Finn Weiss. Finn is very ill, so on Sunday afternoons June and her sister sit for a portrait that he wants to leave for them when he dies. As June’s understanding grows, so does the mystery surrounding Finn and his illness. June’s mother explains to her that Finn has AIDS, but she knows very little about the disease, except for the fear and anxiety it provokes in everyone around her. As she pieces together facts about this strange illness, she begins to understand her uncle in new and unsettling ways.
She first encounters Tobias standing outside of Finn’s funeral service. He is alone and removed from the rest of the mourners, and June’s mother is furious that he has come. June gathers that Tobias is a horrible person and is responsible for Finn’s death. But, as she learns more about him and her uncle, she cannot reconcile her mother’s sentiments with what she has experienced. This story beautifully captures what is like for a young person to assimilate difficult, adult situations into her own understanding of the world. Tell the Wolves I’m Home is a deeply moving, compassionately written first novel.
What first-person narratives do you consider to be compelling and authentic?