When Melon Fouraki‘s mother Maria dies suddenly in an accident, Melon is left with no family to speak of. Grieving, and with only her mother’s beloved Fourakis family fairytale to provide a link to her past, Melon begins to pick through her childhood memories in an attempt to relocate her place in the world.
Throughout actor-turned-author Julie Mayhew‘s début novel, Red Ink, we see Melon adjust to life without her mum, moving in first with the parents of a friend, then with her mother’s boyfriend - and all the while, running through her head is the story of how she came into the world:
“Mama, Maria and Maria’s unborn baby, at the time no bigger than a butter bean, made their way to London where Mama’s sister had gone to live some years before.”
In many ways, Red Ink might appear like any other young adult novel, in that it deals with the kind of “teenage” issues that so many YA authors feel the need to cram into their books, and especially into those books which are aimed at girls.
This is a novel I suspect younger readers could return to again and again...Too many novels marketed towards teenage girls like to rely on topical teen problems rather than spending time and energy on plot and character development.
In Red Ink, then, we have flaky friends, losing your virginity and unrequited almost-love, as well as the life changing, world-rocking challenges of grief, teenage pregnancy and drug addiction.
Initially, as Melon complains about her embarrassing mother, her low self-esteem and the bullies at school, it’s all too easy to see Red Ink as just another insipid and lazily-written teen issue novel.
And yet, in Red Ink Julie Mayhew has created something far more interesting. Melon Fouraki is a pleasingly complex character; she makes careful observations of those around her, and she is sharp and witty.
As she picks apart her often fractious relationship with her late mother, we see the perfect epitome of the awkward teen still waiting to somehow grow into her adult body, in equal measures jealous of and embarrassed by the ease with which her mother handles her own femininity.
It’s almost as if Mayhew is presenting us with a study of motherhood, from Melon’s devoted grandmother, through her mother’s troubled early life, passing over various aunts and cousins in the process.
Throughout the novel, whether on Melon’s trip to Greece to scatter Maria’s ashes, or during her retellings of The Story as a way of dealing with her grief, mother figures are a key preoccupation of Mayhew’s.
Whether they serve to provide a sharp contrast to Maria’s early forays into motherhood, or to emphasise her unique and irreplaceable position in Melon’s life and history isn’t ever quite resolved. Certainly, though, when we revisit Melon at the end of the novel, her situation feels redemptive and positive rather than an unfortunate repetition of history.
This is an enjoyable and interesting read, although it does feel like a book perhaps unnecessarily constrained by its YA label. The appeal to older readers of a teenage protagonist sometimes feels limited in a way that’s rare in a YA book this well-written – which is a shame. Red Ink is a novel that most adults would peruse only once, but to which I suspect younger readers could return to again and again.
Red Ink was published in hardback by Hot Key on 7th February and is available from Foyles, Amazon or your local independent bookshop, priced at £12.99. An ebook edition is also available, priced at £6.99.
Recommended for: Teenage readers looking for a book with more depth and soul than standard YA fare.
Other recommended reading: Try Undone by Cat Clark or Infinite Sky by C.J.Flood.