One of the main reasons behind my purchase of ‘Red Ink’ was the fact that it is published by Hot Key Books. I’ve only recently become aware of this publisher, but I already know how high their standards are; all the books I’ve picked up from Hot Key have been very good indeed, and this one is no different. They’re well-written, and edgy, and fresh, and slightly off-beat, in all the best possible ways.
‘Red Ink’ tells the story of a fifteen-year-old girl coming to terms with awful loss, and trying to rebuild her life, and herself. It takes us from London to Crete and back again, describing the differing landscapes with such precise and poetic language that we can feel the streets under our feet, see the sparkling blue sea, hear the passing traffic, smell the warm dust in the air. The writing in this book is a living thing. It is the voice of our narrator; for the duration of the novel, we are her. It absorbed me completely.
Our narrator has to live under the heavy burden of a name she despises, and this is the point at which we’re first introduced to her. We learn her name is Melon Fouraki, and we learn that her mother is dead. At the beginning of the novel, Melon is living with her late mother’s partner, Paul, who – wonderfully – is portrayed throughout as a good, kind, compassionate and caring man, who wishes to look after Melon and keep her safe. He loves her, and he loved her mother, and his grief is as real and as raw as Melon’s, though we experience it at a remove. Throughout the novel, people raise eyebrows over Melon and Paul’s relationship, projecting sordid and distasteful things onto it; this serves to make their bond seem even more precious, and it was one of the things about the novel I enjoyed the most. Of course, Paul’s guardianship over Melon causes her irritation at first, and she rails against his efforts to show her the parental love which, in many ways, she has always lacked, but one thing she always has for him is respect. He is a great character, and I loved what Mayhew did with him.
Melon herself is a wonder. Funny, abrasive, full-colour, so real you can nearly hear her voice narrating her story to you, I absolutely loved her. She’s one of the most convincing characters I’ve ever met, and this is largely because Mayhew tackles the concept of grief so well. Melon obviously loved her eccentric, slightly batty mother, and she is devastated by her sudden and tragic death, but at the book’s outset she is consumed with anger, and doesn’t even realise it. Her mother’s death is ‘no big deal’; she doesn’t have any feelings on the matter, besides the fact that she feels like there’s a brick lodged in her ribcage. As the story goes on, the reality of her loss begins to hit home and we walk by her side as she processes the stages of her grief. Every step of it is utterly believable. She finds herself feeling normal at times, then feeling guilty for feeling normal, as if it’s a betrayal of her mother’s memory to spend the occasional day unbowed by grief; she makes jokes to cover her own awkwardness and that of other people in discussing loss, and death, and sorrow. It’s one of the most touching, and true, expositions of grieving that I’ve ever read.
Alongside Melon’s present-day journey, we also have ‘The Story’ – the story that Melon’s mother has told her all her life, her ‘origin myth’. It is the story of her father, and how Melon was conceived in Crete, and the heartbreaking romance of her parents’ separation. Everything about Melon’s life, from her strange name to her father’s absence, are explained away in beautiful terms by ‘The Story’, which Melon has heard so often that she can recite it by heart. It is, in real terms, the only thing her mother left her. It is her legacy. In an attempt to find out more about herself and her family and to see the real landscape behind the story, Melon traces her mother’s life back to where it began – in Crete. The results of this search go to the foundation of Melon’s own life. She learns the truth behind ‘The Story’, and it begins to be retold.
There is a lot to like in this book. Besides the characterisation, I enjoyed the structure, which flips back and forth in time. Some chapters describe Melon’s life before her mother’s death, some after, which builds up a gradual picture of their relationship. The language is pitch-perfect, the settings are fantastic, the depictions of family life are excellent. It is full of love and loss and truth, and it tells a strong story. There was one aspect of the book that I didn’t like so much, but I’m not going to give it away here, of course; one aspect of the conclusion of Melon’s story felt unnecessary to me, and a little too ‘pat’. If you’ve read it, you probably know what I mean, and if you haven’t, I hope you’ll read it in an attempt to find out.
Happy weekend, and happy reading. I’d love to know what’s currently on your Bookish Radar. Feel free to share in the comments!