The Weight of Ink
By Rachel Kadish
Read June 2020
This book was recommended to our book discussion group as a highly worthy read. Its length (592 pages) led to its timing as the first book of the fall season giving us the summer to read it. This reader consumed it in fairly short order while listening to it on a 24 hour road trip plus some. As is increasingly popular, the novel has two parallel sets of inerconnected stories. In this case the settings for each are in the London area, but separated by time—about 400 years.
One set of sections is set in 2000. Professor Helen Watt, a professor of history at a London university, has hired Aaron Levey, an American graduate history student at her university, to help her assess a trove of documents found under the staircase of a house undergoing renovation. She has three days to get a sense of their historical significance to make a recommendation regarding their acquisition by her university before an outside appraiser is engaged. Helen is about to reach mandatory retirement age and would love to have a final positive bang for her academic career which has felt stifled by the men in her department. Aaron is struggling with his thesis topic and welcomes a short break from it, although working with Helen isn’t easy either. The papers they are reviewing are from the 1650’s and 1660’s from the household of Rabbi HaCoen Mendes who had come from Amsterdam to London to join fellow members of the Amsterdam Portuguese Inquisition refugee community who had since migrated to London and were generally concealing their religion to stay out of harms way. The rabbi had been blinded during the Inquisition so required a scribe to read and write for him. These documents were, at least in part, in this scribe’s handwriting. Shortly before their three days end, Helen and Aaron make the discovery that the scribe is a woman, a surprising finding as women weren’t generally sufficiently educated to serve in such a position, and even if they were, it wasn’t considered appropriate.
The other set of sections is set during the time of the writing of the documents Helen and Aaron are reviewing and provide the story of the documents and their authors. We learn that two children of the Amerstam refugees had studied with Rabbi HaCoen Mendes in Amsterdam before he left for London. After their parents were lost in a fire, the siblings were sent to live with the rabbi in London. The brother left the home and refused the rabbi’s request to be his scribe. Ester Velasquez, the sister, was relieved of her household duties to become his scribe, at least temporarily. Rabbi Mendes manages to delay plans for Amsterdam to replace Ester as scribe (she should, of course, marry and have a family—the only option for women besides service in others’ households).
So over the course of 592 pages readers spend time in 2000 and the 1660’s. The story set in 2000 progresses the course of study of the documents by Helen and Aaron and their academic competitors after the university’s acquisition of the documents (Aaron continues working with Helen after that three day assessment period). Who will publish what first? It gives a picture of research on this kind of document—where and how review can occur, what care of the documents is required, information about the ink in the documents and how that complicates research, and what the research can and can’t reveal. It includes Helen’s struggles with the department chair regarding her continued access to the documents following her required retirement and her battles with Parkinson’s disease which complicates her study. This section also dips into Helen’s past to give us the backstory that led her to focus on Jewish history. We get background on Aaron, his struggles both professional and personal and his evolving perception of Helen. The story set in the 1660’s progresses the story of Ester as scribe for Rabbi Mendes, his household, who provides financial support, and Ester’s life. Interestingly, this is the time of the Black Plague in Europe and how Ester experiences it likely falls on readers’ ears differently if they are reading this book during the Covid-19 Pandemic of 2020 vs other times.
The stories of Helen and Ester compare and contrast the possible paths in their respective times for women with clear, quick minds if their inclination or choice isn’t fixed upon marriage. Supporting characters Aaron Levy and Mary, another member of the London Jewish community who engages Ester as a companion so she can socialize with London society, provide additional stories highlighting the conventions of dating, courtship, and marriage in the two periods.
This novel is classified on this website as Historical Fiction. Like other well-written Historical Fiction, this novel has its story interacting in an appropriately consistent manner with actual history. In this case the real historical characters are the famous Rabbi Menasseh ben Israel and Baruck Spinoza, both members of the Amsterdam refugee community of the Spanish/Portugues Inquisition. Menassah was on a mission to populate England with Jews to enable the coming of the Messiah (which apparently was anticipated by Christian scholars at the time too). Spinoza was a member of the Amsterdam refugee community who was excommunicated by the rabbis when he was only 23 as his philosophies were contrary to the accepted teachings of the times. Some of the documents Helen and Aaron study are letters between Menasseh and Rabbi Mendes. Some of the documents are letters between Spinoza and a little known scholar.
Although there were sections that could have been more concise without losing any substance or feeling, this reader greatly enjoyed this book. The modern characters were certainly believable. One of the points of the book was to create Ester’s character to demonstrate what she could offer if she could exist. Certainly her courage and desires were believable. The historical and philosophy information/lessons were appreciated by this reader and well woven into the story. Similarly the theme of the constraints on women’s role in society over time was not heavy handed. That historians can’t find the whole story despite their best efforts is an interesting assertion the author make which is certainly true in this case.
This book can be enjoyed over a short period of time—like a 24 hour road trip—or at a more leisurely pace. This reader anticipates enjoying re-reading at least parts before the book discussion, especially as it’s not for several months!