The truism that history repeats itself is even more true in fiction. Rachel Kadish’s The Weight of Ink demonstrates this with three people in three different centuries who face the same choices between love, life, and duty. In the 1650s, Ester Velasquez struggles to find a way to read and write things that are forbidden to her as a Jewish woman. In the 2000s, Aaron Levy wrestles with his academic obligations and his love for a mysterious women who just headed out to a kibbutz. In the 1950s, Helen Watt falls in love with a Holocaust survivor who offers her a seemingly impossible choice. Over and over, the characters ask themselves whether or not they can make the hard choices that might lead to happiness.
in 2001, Helen Watt is called in to evaluate a cache of documents and books written in Portuguese, Hebrew, and Latin. The items belonged to a seventeenth century rabbi who made his home in Richmond, England; he was one of the first rabbis to move back to England when Oliver Cromwell lifted the ban on Jews living in the country. She leaps on the find, hoping to make one last major discovery before Parkinson’s puts a period on her academic career. Aaron Levy is her appointed assistant, which she resents until they learn to work together. As they read and translate, the third character—Ester Velasquez—begins to emerge.
Ester is an impossibility. She is desperate to learn more about philosophy and theology (really anything she can get her hands on), but her religion and community believe that the only proper role for women is wife and mother. She only manages to scribe for the aforementioned rabbi because he is blind and because he taught her when she was a child. Still, Ester wants more. She wants to write to another one of the rabbi’s students: Benedictus de Spinoza. (Spinoza, according to the Jews of the time, was an outcast for his radical ideas about god.) Even with the gentiles, Ester isn’t taken seriously because of her gender.
For all three characters, choice after choice comes up that forces them to examine their goals and who they are. For Ester, the choices revolve around her religion and gender. How far is she willing to go in her quest for learning? Can she survive being an exile like Spinoza? For Helen, the choice in the 1950s was if she could accept a man who bore the weight of history and duty. Would she be willing to share the man she loved with his country? In the 2000s, the question is whether or not she will buck the rules of academic in her race to learn more about Ester before she’s found out. And, for Aaron, the choice is much like one Ester faces later in the book. Will Aaron give up his current situation to follow the possibility of love? There are many further complications for each of the trio but, essentially, their choice is between what they know and an unknown future.
As a bonus for me, The Weight of Ink is also full of Jewish and philosophical history that I devoured. I didn’t find the ins and outs of seventeenth century Jewish life and philosophy heavy going, but I suspect that it’s because I’m a librarian and an academic. Most of this book takes place in libraries. For me, reading about translation and research are not at all boring. For readers who are interested in Jewish characters, history, and philosophy or who just like reading about research, this book will be amazing. It’s clear to me that Kadish did a lot of research to bring Ester’s world to life and I think she’s very good at introducing detail without overloading the book or sounding pedantic.
Unlike most books that move back and forth through time, I was equally interested in all three characters in their different centuries. Each time the perspective changed, I would immediately engage with the new chapter. The parallels between the characters and the choices they face link them all and their personalities put a fresh spin on these decisions. Choosing the possibility of love and happiness over staying put might seem like an easy choice, but each of the characters’ journeys show just how hard it is to make the leap. I was on tenterhooks until the end of the book and their decisions were revealed.
I received a free copy of this book from NetGalley for review consideration. It will be released 6 June 2017.