The Weight of Ink is a fascinating work of historical fiction set in London of the 17th century and 2000-2001. It is brimming with compelling characters and interwoven plots related to scholarship, feminism, academia, anti-semitism, love, guilt and atonement. Throughout the novel, across time, the question that torments our main characters has to do with how one lives one’s life and supports one’s beliefs: is it better to die for what you believe or to live at all costs? And what do you do if the person you love does not see it as you do? Can these seemingly opposing views be reconciled?
The novel begins in 2000 with university historian Helen Watt, a known and respected (perhaps feared) scholar specializing in England’s Interregnum and Jewish history. Helen is ailing and alone and seems to prefer it that way. She had had a great love in her youth, and the story of this love and its loss is told bit by bit in the novel. Helen knows she is reaching the end of her career, but a former student has just alerted her to the existence of a trove of 17th century documents discovered as he and his wife were renovating their home. The student invites Helen to look them over. She is given three days to examine them before Sotheby’s comes for an evaluation. A mere glance tells Helen that these documents are significant and should be acquired by the university. In order to help her sift through as much as possible in the three days, a fellow historian recommends his graduate student, the brash American Aaron Levy. He is proficient in Portuguese, Hebrew and other languages, and his dissertation research on Shakespeare and the Jews is going nowhere. Helen and Aaron are like oil and water, but as the documents reveal their secrets, the two learn to work together and will themselves changed by it. Helen must reconcile with her past and Aaron with his present and future.
The trove of documents comprises books, household accounts and the correspondence of Rabbi HaCoen Mendes, sent to London by Amsterdam’s Jewish community in 1657 to help the Jews of England rebuild their community after having been banned for 400 years. While the discovery of this relatively unknown rabbi’s sermons and correspondence would be a significant find on its own, Helen soon realizes that the rabbi’s scribe, known as Aleph, is a woman — something absolutely unheard of. The documents promise to make a great impact on historians’ understanding of Jews, England, and women, but after the university acquires the documents at Helen’s request, department head Jonathan Martin opens the documents to another scholar who has a team of graduate students to help him and who might scoop Helen and Aaron. Thus the tensions are set: between the older and very English Helen and the brash young American Aaron, between Helen and her body and time, and between team Helen/Aaron and the other scholar’s upstart team.
The heart of the novel revolves around the story of Ester Velasquez, aka Aleph, the scribe for Rabbi HaCoen Mendes. The Rabbi, a compassionate man, had taught Ester and her brother Isaac. Ester’s father had been a wealthy Amsterdam merchant and thought that his daughter deserved an education (a radical view for the time). The Rabbi took in Ester and Issac after their parents were killed in a tragedy, and he brought them with him to London when he received his assignment there. Many Jews in London had come from Amsterdam, and many of those from Amsterdam had fled from Portugal’s Inquisition. Rabbi Mendes had himself fled the Inquisition after being tortured and blinded by it. He survived while others of his family died. Ester’s prospects have fallen dramatically with the loss of her parents and their wealth. Her mother’s reputation as a “bad woman” further alienates Ester from “good society.” She clings to Isaac but his own feelings of guilt lead to his disappearance from Ester’s life once they reach London. It is in these circumstances that the Rabbi engages Ester, who had been one of his brightest students, to become his scribe. Ester’s pains are many — the loss of her parents, conflicted feelings for her troubled mother, abandonment by her equally troubled brother. But she loves learning and now has access to books thanks to the Rabbi. Ester enjoys writing his letters and learning the thoughts and philosophies of contemporaries. She does, however, also learn of forbidden beliefs. Famed philosopher Spinoza, exiled from the Jewish community of Amsterdam for his offensive views of God, had once been a pupil of Rabbi HaCoen Mendes. Ester finds herself drawn to his ideas and other dangerous philosophies even though the Rabbi has warned her against them.
Tensions rise as the community in Amsterdam requests that the Rabbi hire an appropriate male scribe. The expectation is that Ester, like all women, will marry, but she doesn’t wish to do so. For a time, Ester serves as the paid companion to a wealthy Jewish girl named Mary who bucks the conservatism and traditionalism of London Jews. She attends plays and invites actors to her home while her father is away. While Ester does not approve, she now has the opportunity to meet others. Yet, as these new people are not Jewish, Ester is also introduced to the anti-semitism in London. She will have the brief experience a great love but will also participate in a betrayal that haunts her all her days. When the plague hits London, the world turns upside down. Will Ester survive? How will she live if she does?
One big question that arises throughout the novel is whether it is better to die for a belief or to live at all costs. Ester struggles with this question, as did those who suffered the Inquisition, as have Jews throughout history. This question leads to the question of whether there is a God and what the nature of God is. While these are weighty ponderous questions, Kadish does a marvelous job of handling them through her characters. I haven’t studied philosophy in 30 years, but it seems to me she incorporates 17th century philosophical ideas into her text in a seamless and cogent manner. More importantly, in Ester and Helen, Kadish has given the reader characters of depth and complexity. They are extraordinary women struggling to live as they wish in their world. They seem to annoy many of the men around them, who resent their intelligence and drive. They are “nasty women”! And they have to fight tooth and nail to get what they want, often without appropriate recognition for their skills.
I loved this novel. In addition to everything above, Kadish paints a detailed picture of everyday life in 17th century London. The details are exquisite — the clothing, the smells, the feel of the streets of London, the vast difference once you reach the outskirts, the experience of plague and persecution. In addition to Ester and Helen, Kadish’s other characters are equally fascinating and add much color to the story. Rabbi HaCoen Mendes is a kind, erudite man. His faith is deep, as is his capacity to love and forgive. The Rabbi’s housekeeper Rivka is full of energy and loyalty, along with some other surprises. The Rabbi’s pupils, the HaLevy brothers, are a study in contrasts — one overbearing and assertive, the other quiet and kind but life will not turn out exactly as planned for them. In the modern sections of the novel, the two Patricias — Librarian Patricia and restoration lab Patricia — are severe and serious but not incapable of the occasional surprise. Aaron’s interactions with them are often quite funny.
The Weight of Ink is a must-read for those who enjoy historical fiction, particularly those who might be fans of Geraldine Brooks. Kadish’s history and facts are on point, and her plots and characterizations are enthralling. This one might be good for a book club since there are so many potential topics of discussion.