Rachel Kadish’s novel “The Weight of Ink” is a story of passion, faith, and intellect, set in London during the 17th century and at the turn of the 21st. Weaving together elements of Jewish history, British academia, and a splash of Shakespeare, Kadish tells a tale that is easy to get lost in — yet impossible to escape.
Set in the same place at two vastly different times, “The Weight of Ink” tells the story of Helen Watt, an aging history professor with a special interest in Jewish history and a harrowing past. When she discovers a trove of antiquated Hebrew literature under the stairs of an old home, Helen, assisted by a charming American postgraduate named Aaron Levy and two librarians (both called Patricia), Helen undertakes the translation of the documents.
It does not take long for rival teams to catch wind of Helen’s find, kicking off a competition to search for the papers’ mysterious author. Over the course of the research, Helen and Aaron find their own deeply personal translations of the story they uncover. Both are forced to confront their pasts and come to terms with their failures; both have to decide how to move forward.
Intertwined with Helen’s story is that of Ester Velasquez, a young Jewish girl living in London in the seventeenth century, right before plague hits the city. A recent immigrant from the Jewish community in Amsterdam, Ester finds herself in a society that accepts neither her nor her religion.
She finds solace in transcribing letters for her mentor and guardian, a blind rabbi nearing the end of his life. Ester’s experiences in the city with love, death, and the philosophies of the day cause her to question the beliefs she holds closest; eventually, she finds that even the rabbi does not have all the answers.
When the plague hits London, Ester’s life changes irrevocably again, and she is forced to pick once and for all between her head and her heart. In her thoroughly researched, incredibly detailed depictions of London, Kadish illustrates the fetters imposed on a brilliant young woman whose intellect is hampered by her society’s perception of her gender.
Although set in times and places far removed from our own, this novel touches unmistakably on themes that remain relevant: race-based discrimination; the meaning of truth, faith and religion; the politics of a pandemic.
“The Weight of Ink” is an intricately plotted and beautifully written novel about the intersection of faith and reason, the beauty and horror of history and the capacity of the human mind. Above all else, it is about the power of words to transcend centuries.
Kadish is especially adept at putting into words the passions and longings that we all feel but can seldom describe. Once she has placed you in the location of her choosing and the mind of her choosing and the mind of her character, it is hard to escape.