The Weight of Ink by Rachel Kadish

Cover to The Weight of Ink

Rachel Kadish’s talent as a writer in The Weight of Ink engages you in the lives of all her characters. Her gift for making all her characters in both the 20th and 17th centuries come alive will pull you into their stories. Clever and tender, this historical novel and literary mystery will take you on a journey toward the answer of what makes a fulfilling life.

Helen, a historian, has lived a life of the mind, eschewing love. She is very private, prickly and proud. She is in ill health and nearing the end of her career when her supervisor at the university asks her to evaluate a cache of Jewish documents recently found in a 17th-century house outside of London.

Aaron Levy is a smart, charming and sexy, yet shallow American young man; he is at a crossroad in his life when his advisor assigns him to help Helen with her task. His dissertation on Shakespeare and the Jews has stalled. His love life is also on hiatus since the girl he is involved with has gone to Israel.

The letters and documents unite and excite the two scholars as they discover and decipher Ester Velasquez’s story and try to keep other scholars from stealing their academic thunder. In spite of university politics and power plays impeding their discoveries, the mystery of a Jewish female scribe existing in 17th-century England brings Helen and Aaron closer and helps them face their demons.

Helen and Aaron piece together the Jewish scribe’s story with the hint of an exciting discovery about the Bard of Avon. Living in the dark time of the Inquisition, the plague, and the Great Fire of London, Ester chafes at the hand fate has dealt her. Haunted by family tragedy, Ester is feeling powerless in her female body; she yearns to be a scholar and study and learn. The imagery of ink on paper symbolizes the power of words and the burdens they can bring. She becomes a Shakespearean master of misdirection as she hides her identity in order to correspond with and to join the community of the great thinkers of her day, including the philosopher Spinoza. Ester and Helen will both make brave and unfortunate choices in their unwavering quests for lives of the mind.

Love is at the center of this novel, even though Helen and Ester fight to receive recognition for their intellects. I really enjoyed the tender moments in Rachel Kadish’s novel, such as the kindnesses to Helen by the two Patricias, librarian Patricia and the archivist Patricia; the description of Ester taking care of her mentor; the housekeeper’s protectiveness toward Ester and the Rabbi; and, finally, Ester’s pure enjoyment as she swims in the river. At the end, Helen’s sacrifice and Aaron Levy’s final discovery, plus his decision of what to do with Ester’s story, is very moving and shows his growth as a human being.

Try Possession, by A. S Byatt, and The Name of the Rose, by Umberto Eco, if you enjoy The Weight of Ink.