An intellectual and emotional jigsaw puzzle of a novel for readers of A. S. Byatt’s Possession and Geraldine Brooks’s The People of the Book
WINNER OF A NATIONAL JEWISH BOOK AWARD
A USA TODAY BESTSELLER
"A gifted writer, astonishingly adept at nuance, narration, and the politics of passion."—Toni Morrison
Set in London of the 1660s and of the early twenty-first century, The Weight of Ink is the interwoven tale of two women of remarkable intellect: Ester Velasquez, an emigrant from Amsterdam who is permitted to scribe for a blind rabbi, just before the plague hits the city; and Helen Watt, an ailing historian with a love of Jewish history.
When Helen is summoned by a former student to view a cache of newly discovered seventeenth-century Jewish documents, she enlists the help of Aaron Levy, an American graduate student as impatient as he is charming, and embarks on one last project: to determine the identity of the documents' scribe, the elusive "Aleph."
Electrifying and ambitious, The Weight of Ink is about women separated by centuries—and the choices and sacrifices they must make in order to reconcile the life of the heart and mind.
June 8, 1691
11 Sivan of the Hebrew year 5451
Let me begin afresh. Perhaps, this time, to tell the truth. For in the biting hush of ink on paper, where truth ought raise its head and speak without fear, I have long lied.
I have naught to defend my actions. Yet though my heart feels no remorse, my deeds would confess themselves to paper now, as the least of tributes to him whom I once betrayed.
In this silenced house, quill and ink do not resist the press of my hand, and paper does not flinch. Let these pages compass, at last, the truth, though none read them.
November 2, 2000
She sat at her desk.
It was a fine afternoon, but the cold sunshine beyond her office window oppressed her. In younger days, she might have ventured out, hoping against reason for warmth.
Hope against reason: an opiate she’d long abandoned.
Slowly she sifted the volumes on her desk. A dusty bilingual edition of Usque’s Consolação lay open. She ran the pad of one finger down a page, before carefully shutting the book.
Half past one ?— ?and the American hadn’t so much as telephoned. A lack of professionalism incompatible with a finding of this magnitude. Yet Darcy had said the American was his most talented postgraduate ?— ?and Darcy, perhaps alone among her colleagues, was to be trusted.
“Levy can help with the documents,” Darcy had said over the phone. “Glad to lend him to you for a bit. He’s amusingly ambitious, in the American sort of way. Thinks history can change the world. But even you should be able to tolerate it for three days.”
Recalling, Helen almost chuckled. Even you. Good for Darcy. He, evidently, still thought Helen someone worth standing up to.
Three days, of course, was nowhere near the time required to make a true assessment. But it was something ?— ?far more time, in fact, than Helen had any right to. Only the Eastons’ ignorance of the usual protocols had prevented them from laughing her out of their house when she’d announced that she required further access to the documents. She’d dared ask no more, sitting there at the dark wooden table opposite Ian and Bridgette Easton ?— ?the sun from the windows lying heavily aslant the couple’s manicured hands, the towering mullioned windows casting bars of shadow and diamonds of light?.?.?. and Helen’s own thoughts tumbling from what she’d just glimpsed.
Consultations like yesterday’s weren’t unheard of, of course; people sometimes turned up old papers in their attics or at the bottom of handed-down trunks, and if they didn’t think to call an antiquities council they contacted the university and asked for the history faculty. Yesterday’s caller, though, had asked specifically for Helen Watt. Ian Easton: the name had meant nothing to Helen, though he said he’d been her student once, years ago.
“You see” ?— ?Easton’s manner over the telephone was apologetic ?— ?“my wife inherited a property from her aunt ?— ?a house dating to the late seventeenth century. Our plan all along has been to renovate, then open a gallery in the house. Of course it’s all my wife’s idea ?— ?she’s the one with the aesthetic sense, not me, and she understood right away what could be done by juxtaposing high modern art with those seventeenth-century rooms. Unfortunately, though” ?— ?Easton paused, then continued carefully ?— ?“there have been delays. Two years’ worth, in fact. Consent to renovate a listed building is hard to come by in the best of cases” ?— ?an uncomfortable chuckle as he hastened not to offend ?— ?“not that the local planning authority’s caution is inappropriate, of course. The conservation officers are only doing their job. But, rather inconveniently, it seems my wife’s late aunt spent decades offending members of every historical preservation group in the vicinity. Now that we’ve finally obtained all the requisite permissions, we’ve had an electrician open a space under the old carved staircase to put in wiring. And the fellow quit work after fifteen minutes. Called me over to say he’d found a stash of papers in Arabic and the building ought to be checked for hideaway imams or maybe terrorists, all the same to him, in any case he’d be off to another job till I sorted it. Seems he didn’t notice that the papers he found are dated more than three hundred years ago. I had a look, and I think the lettering might in fact be Hebrew ?— ?there’s something, I think it’s Spanish, addressed to a rabbi. So?.?.?.” Ian Easton’s voice trailed off awkwardly. “So,” he added, “I’m calling.”
Telephone cradled to her cheek, Helen had let the pause lengthen. She considered the file open on her computer, the cursor blinking endlessly as it had the past hour, midway through a paragraph she’d no taste for. She couldn’t remember ever feeling dull about her work. But this was how it was lately: things that had once felt vibrant were draining from her ?— ?and, now and then, other sparks had begun appearing in her mind as though thrown up by hammer blows. Flashes of memory, riveting ?— ?the soft thump of a shed door closing in the desert heat, smells filling her nostrils for a dizzying instant. Sparks extinguishing, thank heaven, before they could catch.
She’d straightened a low stack of books. “Perhaps Monday,” she said.
“Thing is” ?— ?Ian Easton’s voice attained a slightly more anxious pitch ?— ?“I wonder if you might come today. We’ve had quite a time getting this electrician, and we don’t want him to take another job. And the papers seem fragile, I’ve felt I shouldn’t move them.”
In truth, she knew she could afford a few hours. She’d barely progressed in her writing all day, and this paper she was writing was mere cleanup work, something she’d promised herself to finish before retirement. A summation of the sparse facts known about the dispersal of the London Jewish community during the 1665–66 plague ?— ?their imported rabbi fleeing England the moment the pestilence set in; wealthy congregants escaping to the countryside; then little trace of London’s Jews in the city’s records until the community re-formed a few years later under new leadership. She’d not be sorry to leave the work behind for an afternoon.
Still she’d hesitated, interrogating Ian Easton for further details of the history of the house. When at last she acquiesced to his request, it was in a tone certain not to encourage romantic fantasies regarding some collection of old papers under his stair.
A brief drive to Richmond to check out some papers, then. She’d undertaken it with a dim sense that this was something she ought to be doing at this stage: get herself out and about on a clear day, while...
A USA Today Bestseller
Winner of a National Jewish Book Award
Winner of the Association of Jewish Libraries Jewish Fiction Award
An Amazon Best Book of the Year
Winner of the Boston Authors Club Award for Fiction
Finalist for the Sami Rohr Prize for Jewish Literature
One of Ms. Magazine's "Bookmark" Titles
One of The Jewish Exponent's "2017's Top Reads"
"A gifted writer, astonishingly adept at nuance, narration, and the politics of passion."
"Rachel Kadish’s The Weight of Ink is like A.S. Byatt's Possession, but with more seventeenth-century Judaism...A deeply moving novel."
“I gasped out loud…[Kadish has a ] mastery of language…[The Weight of Ink] was so powerful and visceral…Incredible…I haven’t been able to read a book since.”
—Rose McGowan, New York Times Book Review Podcast
"This book is historical fiction with a side of philosophy set in London, and it explores choices for women in different time periods. What impacts your choices? Do you have candles to read by? Do you have access to books, mentorship and education? What will it take to bring your passions to life? You’ll think about all that and more as you read this novel."
—Ms. Magazine, "Feminist Fiction Books to Curl Up With for the Holidays"
"Rachel Kadish’s novel The Weight of Ink is my top Jewish feminist literary pick. Kadish’s novel weaves a web of connections between Ester Velasquez, a Portuguese Jewish female scribe and philosopher living in London in the 1660s, and Helen Watt, a present-day aging historian who’s trying to preserve Ester’s voice even as she revisits her own repressed romantic plot. Both Ester and Helen are part of a long literary line of what writer Rebecca Goldstein has termed 'mind-proud women.'"
—Lilith, "7 Jewish Feminist Highlights of 2017"
"So many historical novels play with the 'across worlds and centuries trope,' but this one really delivers, tying characters and manuscripts together with deep assurance. A book to get lost in this summer."
—Bethanne Patrick, LitHub
"A page-turner. Kadish moves back and forth in time (including an excursion to Israel in the 1950s) with great skill. She knows how to generate suspense – and sympathy for her large cast of characters...packed with fascinating details...The Weight of Ink belongs to its women...Kadish’s most impressive achievement, it seems to me, lies in getting readers to think that maybe, just maybe, a woman like Esther could have existed in the Jewish diaspora circa 1660."
"An amazing feat...A great literary and intellectual mystery...you feel as if you're sifting through these letters yourself...a very immersive summer read."
—Megan Marshall, "Authors on Authors" for Radio Boston
"A superb and wonderfully imaginative reconstruction of the intellectual life of a Jewish woman in London during the time of the Great Plague."
—Times Higher Education
"An impressive achievement...The book offers a surprisingly taut and gripping storyline...The Weight of Ink has the brains of a scholar, the drive of a sleuth, and the soul of a lover."
—Historical Novel Society
"Deeply satisfying to anyone who enjoyed Geraldine Brooks’ People of the Book...[The Weight of Ink is a] historical epic that transports readers back to the days of Shakespeare, Spinoza and the Great Plague, uncovering some rich details of Jewish life in the 1600s along the way."
—Jewish World News
"Kadish knows how to create a propulsive plot peopled with distinctive characters. The Weight of Ink has enough mysteries to keep readers turning pages, and a fair amount of thematic and intellectual heft...Rewarding."
"This astonishing third novel from Kadish introduces readers to the 17th-century Anglo-Jewish world with not only excellent scholarship but also fine storytelling. The riveting narrative and well-honed characters will earn a place in readers' hearts."
—Library Journal, starred review
“Like A.S. Byatt’s Possession and Tom Stoppard’s Arcadia, this emotionally rewarding novel follows […] present-day academics trying to make sense of a mystery from the past…Vivid and memorable.”
"A mysterious collection of papers hidden in a historic London home sends two scholars of Jewish history on an unforgettable quest....Kadish's characters are memorable, and we're treated to a host of them: pious rabbis and ribald actors, socialites and troubled young men, Mossad agents and rule-worshipping archivists. From Shakespeare's Dark Lady to Spinoza's philosophical heresies, Kadish leaves no stone unturned in this moving historical epic. Chock-full of rich detail and literary intrigue."
"Kadish positions two women born centuries apart yet united by a thirst for knowledge at the core of a richly textured, addictive novel stretching back and forth through time, from contemporary London to the late seventeenth century....Kadish has fashioned a suspenseful literary tale that serves as a compelling tribute to women across the centuries committed to living, breathing, and celebrating the life of the mind."
"The Weight of Ink hooked me so deeply...Kadish, with storytelling genius, mirrors events and eureka moments across the centuries, binding the characters to one another. And an enormously satisfying ending wraps everything up while leaving enough rough edges to mimic the loose ends of real life."
—Adrian Liang, The Amazon Book Review
“The Weight of Ink is the best kind of quest novel—full of suspense, surprises and characters we care passionately about. How thrilling it is to watch the imperious Helen and the scholarly Aaron turn into brilliant literary detectives as they uncover the identity of a woman who lived more than 300 years ago, and how thrilling it is to get to know that woman intimately in her own time. A beautiful, intelligent and utterly absorbing novel.”
—Margot Livesey, author of Mercury
"Rachel Kadish draws us deep inside the vivid, rarely-seen world of 17th century Jewish London, conjuring the life and legacy of an extraordinary woman with an insatiable hunger for knowledge and education. A vital testament to the importance of books and ideas, The Weight of Ink unfolds like a revel...
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