Red Ink is a young adult/teen novel about grieving the loss of a parent and learning the painful truth about the past. The novel is narrated by 15-year-old Melon Fourakis in a manner that takes the reader back and forth through time, jumping ahead to the days and months after her mother Maria’s unexpected death and back to the time preceding it. In doing so, author Mayhew keeps readers on the edge of their seats and thoroughly engaged in unraveling the mystery of “The Story” that Maria left to her daughter.
When Melon begins her story, we know it is 17 days after the death of her mother Maria, a social worker who moved to London from Crete as a pregnant teenager. Maria was hit by a bus, and now Melon, who has never known her father and whose other relatives still live on Crete and are unavailable to her, is an orphan. She is being cared for by another social worker named Paul, who was her mother’s boyfriend and who is dealing with his own grief. Melon is angry and resentful of Paul and the other social workers involved in her life. She is also experiencing sorrow and feelings of guilt for reasons that are teased out slowly throughout the novel. At the suggestion of a therapist, Melon is keeping a journal in which she writes “The Story” that her mother used to tell her about the past: about the melon farm where Maria grew up, the lovely boy next door, the move to London, Melon’s birth and so on. Melon knows a little about the family still living on Crete since she and Maria made yearly visits there, but she also knows that the relationship between Maria and her father and his family was strained, and that he always seemed completely uninterested in seeing Maria. None of the family from Crete attend her mother’s funeral or acknowledge the death in any way, which is unsurprising to Melon.
In addition to the grief and guilt she feels after her mother’s death, Melon is also dealing with a friend who suddenly seems uncomfortable being with her. Chick lives in the neighborhood, and she and Melon have been best friends since they were little, but once Maria dies, Chick and her family seem almost frightened to be with Melon. Even the kids at school stop being mean and teasing Melon (for her name, for her curvy body). Everyone seems awkward and distant in Melon’s presence now, which seems to exacerbate Melon’s anger and depression. She retreats into her house, seeing social workers only because she must, falling deeper and deeper into depression, until the day she snaps and lets her grief out. This is actually not shown in detail, which is a bit of a shame. Mayhew’s depiction of Melon’s grief and internalized despair are poignant and, I think, instructive for young people who might struggle with similar feelings. It reminded me of Patrick Ness’ A Monster Calls, which depicts a child’s fear, depression and isolation in a realistic and compassionate way. All we know is that this event unlocked the dam for Melon, and in part 2 of the novel, she and Paul, who had had a troubled relationship, are on their way to Crete for some closure.
Part 2 is where the truth about “The Story” comes out. In Part 1, whenever Melon mentioned things about her family’s past to Paul or the other social workers, it seemed to her as if they knew things she didn’t, which, of course, is true. Maria didn’t tell her co-workers and friends “The Story,” she told them the unadulterated truth about her past. When Melon finally learns the full truth, it is evident why a) Maria didn’t want to tell it to her daughter, b) Paul and the other social workers were very careful about what they told (or didn’t tell) Melon, and c) why Melon reacts as she does when she learns it. As I think back on this part of the novel, I ask myself whether this all holds up, if this seems like something that could have happened, and my answer is yes. Families can be very weird with parts of their history that they don’t like, they can be tight lipped and creative with the facts. I don’t think it’s particularly healthy to gloss over the truth, but we do it, especially with children, and then it just gets tougher to be honest later.
Red Ink is a fine book for teens or young adults and would be a good one for addressing issues like death, grief, and lost relationships. There is a sex scene and teen pregnancy features prominently in the story, but I suspect for most teens it’s pretty tame stuff. (This would have made it banned literature in my house growing up!). Mayhew is a talented writer and I found myself itching to get back to this story whenever I was forced to put it down.