The Weight of Ink

The Weight of Ink

by Rachel Kadish


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"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.  

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781328915788
Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
Publication date: 05/01/2018
Edition description: Reprint
Pages: 592
Sales rank: 14,455
Product dimensions: 5.30(w) x 7.60(h) x 1.70(d)

About the Author

RACHEL KADISH is the award-winning author of the novels From a Sealed Room and Tolstoy Lied: A Love Story, and the novella I Was Here. Her work has appeared on NPR and in the New York Times, Ploughshares, and Tin House

Read an Excerpt

June 8, 1691
11 Sivan of the Hebrew year 5451

Richmond, Surrey 
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 she still could.

As she’d settled into the car, her keys had rattled so wildly in her hand that she’d had to tame the keyring with both fists before singling out the right key. Forcing it into the ignition took three tries. Today was a bad day, then. She’d need to bear that in mind.

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The Weight of Ink 4.8 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 17 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
As an historian and a Jewish woman I was enthralled. I loved the stories and the details of documentary research
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
The book was well researched . I learned a lot regarding 17th century Jewish life.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I have always liked books that can be in two centuries at once and this one does it smoothly.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
A wonderful tale woven between the 17th century and today of the continuing search for our understanding of ourselves and the universe
cloggiedownunder More than 1 year ago
“Nothing of the building’s exterior – not even the stone walls, with their once-giant wingspan – had prepared him for this. The staircase was opulence written in wood. The broad treads ascended between dark carved panels featuring roses and vines and abundant fruit baskets; gazing down from high walls, their faces full of sad, sweet equanimity, were more carved angels. And halfway up the stairs, two arched windows let in a white light so blinding and tremulous, Aaron could swear it had weight. Windows to bow down before, their wrought-iron levers and mullions casting a mesmerizing grid across the carved wood: light and shadow and light again.” The Weight of Ink is the third novel by American author, Rachel Kadish. In 1657, nineteen-year-old Ester Velasquez and her brother Isaac accompanied Rabbi HaCoen Mendes from Amsterdam to London. The rabbi, tortured and blinded by Inquisitors, was going to minister to London’s Jewish community; the siblings had just been orphaned in a house fire. Late in the year 2000, history professor Helen Watt is asked to examine a cache of books and papers discovered under a staircase in a 17th Century London mansion. Written in Hebrew and Portuguese, the papers appear to date from the mid-seventeenth century, and concern Jewish refugees from the Inquisition. This is potentially an important find, and Helen engages a young American post-graduate student, Aaron Levy to assist her. Unfortunately, they don’t have exclusive access, and find themselves in a bit of a race to uncover the secrets held within. As they examine the trove of papers, Helen and Aaron are surprised and excited to find that the scribe for the blind rabbi might have been a woman. Then, in between the lines of letters about false messiahs written in Portuguese, they discover the story, in Hebrew, of Ester Velazquez, a young Jewess educated by HaCoen Mendes (not quite accidentally, because the rabbi sees much despite his blindness), a young woman with an almost unquenchable thirst for philosophical knowledge and for discourse thereon. It’s a thirst so deep that she engages in subterfuge to attempt to satisfy it. What a superb piece of historical fiction this is. Kadish carefully constructs her tale so that the reader shares the excitement of the small but significant discoveries, of facts slowly revealed, all the while bringing to life the daily routine of London’s seventeenth century Jewish community. The astute reader will, early on, catch the hint of “a gossamer-thin connection” that develops into quite a lovely irony by the end of the story. Her characters, not necessarily likeable at first, slowly gain in appeal: Helen’s gruff exterior (a colleague describes her thus: “Behind the words she could read his regret that the one to make such a find had been Helen Watt – a dried-up scholar, inconveniently unphotogenic, on the cusp of a mandatory retirement no one but her would rue”) mellows somewhat; Aaron will initially strike the reader as arrogant and self-absorbed but his time with Helen definitely matures him: “How had he ever overlooked shy girls? It struck him that the fact that he wasn’t attracted to them might represent a flaw in his character, not theirs.” Kadish gives the reader some exquisite descriptive prose: “She looked at him with the directness of someone making an inner calculus over which he was to have no influence” and “Today, when he’d peered under the staircase, it was as though what he’d starved for all these lifele
Anonymous 5 months ago
A must read
Anonymous 8 months ago
Anonymous 10 months ago
The reiting at times was so beautiful it made me stop and think and just relish the prose. I learned a lot. It would have been perfect if it had not been too long. I was tired of it by the time it ended
tbenne More than 1 year ago
This is a GREAT book. The life of Ester, a young girl turned woman in the 17th century, is way ahead of her time. She is educated, something that just did not happen in that era. It makes her hated by some, along with the fact she is Jewish. Through circumstance, she continues to learn as her protector, the Rabbi with whom she lives, is blind. She is needed to scribe for him until he finds someone "more suitable" meaning male. This never happens and she continues to read and learn, something that sustains her very life. Highly intelligent, Ester leaves behind a series of letters that point out how remarkable this young woman is. It will change the face of what is thought about the 17th century and women in general. I loved this book. I was so taken with it that it becomes difficult to move on to another read because my mind is still pondering Ester and her life. Highly recommended.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
A wonderful read. The layers peel away so gracefully and the passage of time is so meshed within the story lines that you feel that you are on the journey. I didn’t want it to end.
DeenyDV More than 1 year ago
I was totally immersed in this beautifully written historical novel. I highly recommend it!
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Seamlessly moves between the 17th and 21st centuries
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Powerfully clean writing transported me to 16 century Jewish History and back to the present. Expertly written with passion and philosophical ideas of the past. I was engaged from the outset.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
This is a wonderful story ry! I really liked Ester, Aaron Levy, and Helen Watts.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Love it
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Exceptional historical fiction. For a fan of the genre or simply one after enthralling fiction, you can't go wrong with this novel. In lesser hands, some plot points would be as melodramatic as in gothic romances. Rachel Kadish carries off her story with a flourish. History of philosophy or 17th-century London or the Jewish Diaspora or document preservation/restoration not of interest to you? It will be, if you crack the cover of 'The Weight of Ink'..