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Review: Red Ink, By Julie Mayhew

My big fat Greek funeral

Melon's mother Maria has told her never to write a letter in red ink, as to do so is to wish death on the recipient. Yet red is also the colour used for making corrections, for erasing mistakes, for rewriting history.

Red Ink begins with a recipe for Kollyva, the boiled wheat made for funeral wakes in Greece. The language is poetic, rhythmical and soothing, surrounding you with the warmth of tradition and the comfort of ritual: "Dream of a flower dying, shedding its seeds, allowing another flower to grow."

Then the melody breaks and we are with Melon, the narrator, 17 days after her mother, Maria, is hit by a London bus and killed. This is to be her story; the story of how she copes, or doesn't cope. Her voice is chatty, off-hand, that of a 15-year-old girl, yet there is fragility and boldness there – a combination which made me warm to Melon. The reader feels privileged to be let in, and allowed to know her every thought while she remains so closed to those around her.

We see that Melon is difficult to live with, that she is unfair about those people who try to help her, and that she knows it, which creates a strange feeling of duality. She's sarcastic about Maria's boyfriend Paulo, who comes to live with her, and presents him as ridiculous at every opportunity: "When I look at Paul I find it hard to imagine he really has a penis." Yet we can see that Paul is kind. He talks to Melon, ensures that she eats, coaxes her to open up. His frustration at not being able to get through to her is palpable, even though he is never given his own narrative voice.

There are other characters more worthy of Melon's bile: the best friend Chick, who abandons Melon, and Chick's ridiculous mother Mrs Lacey, who displays startling insensitivity when Melon stays with them in the days after Maria's death. Mrs Lacey is the sort of character it is a pleasure to despise. Petty and small-minded with false middle-class values, she is a perfect foil to the beautiful, elfin Maria.

Maria is central to the novel, her voice controlling the sections of the book called "The Story": the tale of how she left the warmth of Crete and came to England to give birth to Melon. The Story is told in the language of fable, the syntax archaic but fitting, the words echoing like a refrain, sometimes a recitation ("As dependable as the melon harvest, as sure as a girl grows taller with every passing summer"), sometimes a curse ("All the Fourakis family die young").

Melon is fiercely attached to The Story, yet there are gaps and things which don't make sense, and somewhere in Crete there is another story which Melon must go and find.

Although Red Ink is billed as a coming-of-age tale, it would be a pity for older readers to dismiss it. There are so many nuances and such precise observations that Red Ink transcends categorisation. I loved it, and found myself describing the world around me as Melon would have done.