I don’t remember how this novel ended up on my radar but it was in my Kindle’s TBR pile, and I figured it was a good time to start slowly working my way through some of the back log. The Weight of Ink is one of those novels with a split time line, with some parts taking place in the early 21st century, while the main story is set in London in 1650s to 1660s.
Helen Watt is history professor on the verge of retirement when a former student contacts her about some documents he and his wife have discovered in their 17th century home. Once Helen does her initial look, she convinces her university to buy the treasure trove of documents and starts working with Aaron, a young American grad student, who has gotten stuck on his thesis work regarding Shakespeare and his Jewish influences.
The counter narrative, of course, involves the people behind those original documents and tells the story of Ester Velasquez, a Sephardic Jew, whose Spanish-Portuguese family had escaped the persecution of Iberia for the safety and tolerance of the Netherlands. In the 1650s, England’s ruler also became slightly more tolerant, which allowed England’s own hidden Jewish population to become public. Ester and her brother, two orphans with no family, accompany a blind rabbi to London to help these long hidden Jews with their religious education. Isaac is unable to live with the role assigned him since he still blames himself for their parents’ death. This leaves Ester to help the rabbi as his scribe since her father had been tolerant enough to have her educated even though it is against the conventions of the day.
Helen and Ester (and Aaron for that matter) are difficult people to like but they are interesting. Helen is close to retirement, suffering from an illness with limited time to explore her discovery before others will have access. Ester is unconventional for her time, and hungers for education, philosophical discussion rather than wanting a conventional life and marriage. Her memories of her mother certainly only strengthen her arguments against marriage since her mother was passionate, volatile and incredibly unhappy.
One question that Kadish explores with both women is the idea of survival vs. principles vs. freedom. The rabbi was blinded during the Inquisition but also cautions the Dutch Jews not to judge the English Jews too harshly for their hesitance about openly practicing their religion. After all, it is easy to judge hiding when living in a tolerant society. Aaron and Helen similarly have discussions along these lines with Aaron not understanding the need to read between the lines when dealing with a group of people that didn’t want everything easily known about them. A few other stories come up as well such as Masada in first century Israel, and a group of English Jews that killed themselves when they thought a Christian mob was about to break through their defenses and kill them (oddly enough this anecdote also came up in another recent read, Here Be Dragons). Is it better to kill oneself rather than live in slavery and hope for a better day in the future? What if the choice is between renouncing one’s religion and death? Why would anyone be surprised that one might choose suicide over death be angry mob which could involve all types of tortures?
Despite using two women that are unlikable and have regrets, I wanted to know what happened, and appreciated that Kadish didn’t always go for the easy twist or answer. Religious persecution, gender discrimination and plagues do not make for an easy life or a quick happily ever after, and while the novel gives the reader answers, they are not easy answers. While the characters may not find their happy endings, the novel’s conclusions for its characters were fitting, and one can’t really ask for more.