"An intellectual and emotional jigsaw puzzle of a novel for readers of A.S. Byatt's Possession and Geraldine Brooks's People of the Book 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, anemigrant 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. As the novel opens, Helen has been summoned by a former student to view a cache of seventeenth-century Jewish documents newly discovered in his home during a renovation. Enlisting the help of Aaron Levy, an American graduate student as impatient as he is charming, and in a race with another fast-moving team of historians, Helen embarks on one last project: to determine the identity of the documents' scribe, the elusive"Aleph."Electrifying and ambitious, sweeping in scope and intimate in tone, The Weight of Ink is a sophisticated work of historical fiction about women separated by centuries, and the choices and sacrifices they must makein order to reconcile the life of the heart and mind"--
Esther, a Portuguese Jew whose family fled to the Netherlands
Helen Watt receives a call from a former student. He and his wife, while renovating an old house, have found a cache of old papers, looking to be in Arabic, Hebrew, or Spanish. Could Helen come and take a look? She’s not eager; she doesn’t imagine they could be anything important. Probably old shopping lists. But she’ll take a look, taking a grad student to do the grunt work. The papers are from 1691, and Helen realizes that they could be an important find. Now she must race against the rest of the history department, her own worsening physical state, and her impending mandatory retirement to get the papers bought, stabilized by the university library, and translated. The story that emerges is one no one imagined.
“Weight of Ink” has been compared to A.S. Byatt’s “Possession”, and it does certainly have similarities. But “Possession” is in large part a tale of two passionate love stories, while “Weight of Ink” certainly has passionate love stories in it, they are minor streams merging into the larger river of Ester’s desire for education and her evolution from scribe to something much more.
This is a great literary mystery, with new things turning up right up to the end. I really liked Ester; I warmed up to Helen as I found out more about her. The cast of characters is huge; not all are likable but that’s how life is. There are a lot of issues dealt with; homosexuality, pregnancy out of wedlock, Jewishness in the time of William and Mary, women’s issues, class, interfaith relationships, and philosophy all both entertain and educate the reader. While the book is slow in places, I never found it boring and it was actually a pretty fast read for a 600 page book! Five stars out of five.
In the 1600s, Ester is an orphaned immigrant in London from Amsterdam who is
It took me a while to get into this book. At nearly 600 pages, it is not quickly read; however, as someone unfamiliar with the Jewish faith and its relationship to Christianity, I found it worth reading. These two women, centuries apart, had a commitment to their truths that makes it remarkable.
The Weight of Ink doesn't disappoint. It delivers 2 stories: one a striking narrative
After years of NOT being permitted to study the Holy Books of the Torah in Spain and Portugal, on pain of death, some of the Amsterdam and English Jews wanted to re-establish Jewish learning. One rabbi, blinded during torture, managed to survive, and now lives in London. He adopts a brother and sister to provide them a home. The boy Isaac acted as scribe for the rabbi, writing and copying responses to Jews who sought his deep rabbinical knowledge. But Isaac abandons the rabbi and his sister, Ester because he is burdened by personal guilt for his role in a deadly accident.
Because Ester’s father permitted her to study with a rabbi, she gladly becomes the rabbi’s compliant scribe. She is upset at having had to move from Amsterdam to London, still mourning her parents, and soon Isaac as well, avoids socializing, becoming depressed. Her only pleasure in life is learning with the rabbi and writing his responses. But soon she is coerced into going out on errands, acting as a companion to the daughter of a wealthy Jewish family, and learns English.
She is always thinking about what she was taught as compared to what she observed and felt. So when her role as scribe is jeopardized, Ester is angry, desperate and cooks up a bold, questionable scheme.
How the 2 stories harmonize and differentiate is captivating; showing how much has both changed and remained the same.
Engaging, smart, and energetic.
This somewhat disturbing tale is the story of a young Jewish girl living in exile in Holland (Amterdam) in 1660 when tragedy forces her to live with an aging Rabbi in England. Ester’s own father, also a rabbi, had encouraged Ester’s education in defiance of
The characters are skillfully defined and brought to life on the pages. The political climates of Jewish diaspora and England between Cromwell and the renewed monarchy are clear. The tension between the rival philosophies is palpable. Although VERY long, the well-researched story holds one’s attention. Ester is a likeable, although obstinate and often misguided, personage. Her plight will resonant with today’s feminist sympathizers.
4 of 5 stars because of the 600 page length.
MY RATING ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️
PUBLISHED June 6, 2017
NARRATED Corrie James
An complex but emotionally rewarding story of two women centuries apart who sacrificed much by choosing a passion of the mind over the heart.
Two women of
Ester Velasquez, a bright, young immigrant from Amsterdam tirelessly scribes for an aging blind rabbi, despite prohibitions against her doing so. As a result of her work, she learns much from the Rabbi. Her mind is opened to new ideas and self discovery, and she soon longs to do so much more. Despite offers of marriage, Ester staunchly chooses her scholarly work, and she further desires to engage with the brilliant minds of her day, particularly the controversial Dutch philosopher Benedictus de Spinoza. Ester’s story illuminates the standing of Jews in London, the plague (1665) and the Great Fire of London (1666)
The Weight of Ink is a deftly woven epic story of self-discovery of two women. Ester is in the beginning of her adult life and looking forward, and Helen is completing her career, looking backwards over her life. Both women compellingly chose to focus their lives on scholarly work over love in spite of traditional roles for women. Two true Bluestocking women! Poignant, moving and thought-provoking, this book will draw you in like a moth to a flame, and leave you amazed. This is undoubtably one of the best books I have read in 2018.
Rachel Kadish’s writing is masterful and absorbing. She effortlessly transports us back and forward across the centuries, with memorable characters that keep you grounded and propel the story. With close to 600 pages or 23 listening hours, this is by no means a light or quick read, but it is well beyond satisfying. In January 2018, The Weight of Ink was named a winner of a 2017 National Jewish Book Award The Audible version of this book narrated by Corrie James was performed with perfection.
“Love must be, then, and act of truth-telling, a baring of mind and spirit just as ardent as the baring of the body. Truth and passion were one, and each impossible without the other.”
Rachel Kadish, The Weight of Ink
The premise of the story is interesting, but the story is overwritten. By the time I got to the end, the big reveal was not so much.
Written with the majestic prose of yesteryear, with a vocabulary that enchants on every page, the book takes the reader on a journey between centuries introducing the history of Jewish oppression, the Inquisition, the Church, and the
Ester Velasquez was from Amsterdam. When her parents were killed in a fire she and her brother were ostracized because of a shadow that hung over her mother’s reputation and the curse upon them that must have caused the fire from her brother’s lantern. They were placed under the protection and care of Rabbi Ha-Coen Mendes in London. He was kind enough to take them in, although his wife Rivka, was not as welcoming to them. He, blinded during his brutal Inquisitor interrogation, is under the care and protection of Rabbi Benjamin Ha-Levy. They are all dependent on others for their welfare now. The wealthy Jews and their children are sometimes arrogant, carrying themselves with an air of superiority. They are trying hard to fit into the Christian culture of the times in order to prevent their exile or death. Many convert, or pretend to do so. Others assume the haughty demeanor of their tormentors.
Ester was born during a time when women were trained to be good housekeepers, to care for their husbands and to bear children. Often, marriages were arranged. She, however, dreamed of more. Her father had allowed her to learn to read. She wanted to write, to become a philosopher, presenting her theories to the world, but as a women she would not be accepted or allowed to participate in that profession. It was forbidden to think about or to ask certain questions as well, and Baruch de Spinoza is an example of one ostracized not by the Inquisitors, but by his own people. He was forced into exile as a heretic because he raised questions about G-d. Ester was intrigued by his questions and wanted to correspond with him. Of course that communication was forbidden for all Jews and most especially forbidden to women. Well bred women were only allowed to engage in work dealing with the home. Her brother Isaac was trained as a scribe and she wished she could be; he, however, wanted to be a dockworker, which was an unacceptable occupation for a young Jewish male who studied the Torah. Both Velasquez children were independent in their desires.
When tragedy struck the life of Esther again, she was allowed to become the temporary scribe for the Rabbi until a more suitable male scribe could be found to take her place. She thrilled at the thought of being taken away from the household chores she shared with his wife Rivka and dreaded her return to rough and chapped hands from the washing and mending. When events interceded, requiring her to scribe for him for a longer period, to her delight, it turned into a more permanent need. Her life during that time is a subject of the investigation.
The history of the era, with the terror and violence of the Inquisition and the sickness and death wrought by the Plague is intensely interesting and detailed. The brutality and hatred wrought by the overt anti-Semitism is writ large on the page and the reader will learn of many heinous activities that they might not have known before, that Jews were subjected to, even in places where they were supposedly accepted. The ugly head of anti-Semitism from the Church and the populace seemed always ready to rear its head. Intolerance existed on both sides of the aisle, however, with rules for behavior that disadvantaged not only Jews, but non-Jews and all women as well.
The parallel story, some three and a half centuries later, is that of historian Helen Watt, a gentile whose specialty was Jewish history. It begins at the turn of the twenty first century. Helen’s right to engage in her profession as a non-Jew had often been tested. Professor Watt, in failing health and now about to retire, was asked by a former student Ian Easton, to take a look at a trove of documents found hidden under the stairs of his home, built in the 17th century. As it was undergoing renovation, papers had been found, possibly in what was called a Genizah, (a storage area in a Jewish synagogue for the purpose of storing old documents and books that mentioned God, until they could be buried). Helen was told that the documents, written in Portuguese and Hebrew, seemed old and were possibly written in the Hebrew language, perhaps to a Rabbi. She was enthralled with the idea of one last major discovery and decided to immediately go and investigate them before the university and/or Sotheby’s got their hands on them, possibly removing her access, but surely her great opportunity to discover and present the history and authorship of the documents. Helen suffered from Parkinson’s disease, so a post-grad student from her university, Aaron Levy, was asked to help. He was arrogant and often rude, but he worked with her and matures under her tutelage. Their relationship causes both of them to grow in different ways.
Soon after she and Aaron gained access to the documents, their study was also given to a group of post grads in the school, who were younger, had more influence and were more powerful than she, who was now being relegated to the old and feeble category. She was forced to work more slowly with only Aaron to help her. Still, they made many interesting discoveries which they, perhaps unfairly, withheld for themselves to investigate. The competition in their field was fierce and often a rush to judgment led to incorrect conclusions
The parallel stories enlighten the reader as to the early lives of both Ester and Helen, their lost loves, their challenges, their mistakes and their secrets. Though separated by three and a half centuries, their history, revealed in these pages, shares many similarities. Both women suffer from illnesses, both from unrequited love, both from a desire to learn and both face an environment not fully welcoming to the education and acceptance of women, although in the 21st century, much has changed.
At the time of the discovery, Helen Watts was working on a project she hoped would lead to the discovery of the whereabouts of Jews who had left England during the time of the plague from 1665-1667 and had not reappeared until a few years later. Where had they gone? She was not fully absorbed in the research. Aaron was working on his dissertation which was an investigation concerning the possibility of a connection between Shakespeare and Jews escaping the Inquisition in Elizabethan London, but he was unable to find the impetus to provide the energy or creativity to finish it. Could this discovery of a possible Genizah provide Helen and Aaron the answers to their own personal quests? Would the life of Esther Velasquez shed light on research projects for both of them, and in so doing alter their lives and views.
The history is very well researched and enlightening. There are many questions raised for the reader. Although the story is not true, many of the characters mentioned are real and many that aren’t are based on real people. The history is accurate, although the story is fiction.
Ester Valasquez is a young woman living in the home of an elderly Jewish rabbi. Because she had the unusual background of being taught to write (especially in different languages), she does much of the scribe work for Rabbi HaCoen Mendes. Ester's life becomes pulled between the expected role of a young woman and her great desire to learn and debate. She becomes especially interested in the works of Spinoza, who considered a heretic by the Jewish community.
One thread of the plot of the story twists between the controversial ideas of the time, the role of God in the Universe, the plague that kills so many, and the role of women. The other thread twists between Helen's past in Israel (she is not Jewish), and Adam's coming to grips with his own issues.
Loved the story line of Ester; however, the book could have been made shorter if some of the extraneous events in Helen and Adams life had been eliminated.
Part of the story's charm is in the variety of its milieus and sensibilities. Following two female protagonists of both centuries—Ester Velasquez and Helen Watt, respectively—we also witness the goings-on of a venerable and drafty house of a rabbi in 1660s London, and glimpse the modern life of a young American academic, Aaron Levy, with heartrending troubles of his own. Perhaps most pivotally, we see an English girl’s time volunteering abroad on a kibbutz in Israel in the years after the war of independence. In spite of a gulf of over 300 years, these characters depend on each other each for their own reasons, any of which can provide parallels in the present day.
The images of these different times and places, brought to life at once through painstaking detail and accessible prose, are startlingly clear, even cinematic. Supporting roles, too, are far from dull. Much more than mere foils, even minor characters are fascinating in their own right. The Rabbi and others around Ester are fascinating -- Rivka, a servant and survivor of Polish pogroms, is not simply loyal, but also intrigues with a timeless intellect and will. The men in Ester Velasquez’s and Helen Watts’ lives wholly determine the courses of their universes. Indeed, perhaps too much for comfort, but believable nevertheless.
The book includes explorations into philosophy as Ester corresponds with Spinoza and others. Ester focuses on the pursuit of philosophy, including its relationship with both her mind and heart as can be seen in this passage:
“How wrong she'd been, to believe a mind could reign over anything. For it did not reign even over itself...and despite all the arguments of all the philosophers, Ester now saw that thought proved nothing. Had Descartes, near his own death, come at last to see his folly? The mind was only an apparatus within the mechanism of the body - and it took little more than a fever to jostle a cog, so that the gear of thought could no longer turn. Philosophy could be severed from life. Blood overmastered ink. And every thin breath she drew told her which ruled her.”
There are also interesting historical details of the Spanish Inquisition that led the Jewish toward flight into Holland; this suggested to this reader a certain irony when those same Jews ostracized Spinoza for his heretical pantheistic views. The issue of what it is to be Jewish and to enter interfaith relationships in multiple time periods are integral to each of these stories. Is there merit to keeping within the tribe? Are there, regardless of time, place, or commitment, bridges that those who would willingly enter the Jewish community from the outside can never truly cross? Crucially, what does it mean to choose survival over martyrdom? These questions play out in the characters’ personal lives concurrently with Ester’s philosophical forays into the nature of God.
The author's prose is elegant and she takes her time to slowly build the two different narratives until the suspense in both centuries keeps the reader turning the pages. All of the stories yield mysteries and personal travails that made this a deeply moving novel.
I found this quite difficult to get into at the beginning, but it picked up after a while, although it was never exactly fast-paced. The different time frames and narrative perspective provided a good amount of contrast, but slowed the momentum too. I am afraid I didn't try to
It's a wonderful story from both perspectives, with a wonderful blend of parallels in differences between them. It's a story of a woman's place in society, and of broad philosophical themes such as faith and determinism. The characters are vividly portrayed...I loved this book.
The other timeline is during the year 2000, when a trove of Esther's writings are found in a secret compartment in an old house outside London. It follows Helen Watt, a History professor about to enter forced retirement, and Aaron Levy, her young assistant struggling with his doctoral thesis and longing for a girlfriend who has moved to Israel.
Beautifully written, with a compelling and gripping story. It also weaves in the story of the Plague hitting London, and gets a bit into the philosophy and excommunication of Spinoza.
Only criticism is that the book goes on a bit long, and I have some issues with the ending which I won't spoil.
Helen is just weeks away from retirement when a former student finds a cache of papers in the 17th century home he and his wife are renovating. With the aid of an American graduate student, she begins the task of finding out what the papers reveal, racing against a team of rival scholars and her own diminishing health.
This is one of the few historical novels using the framework of someone from the present day researching a past event that worked for me. Usually, one of the timelines, usually the one set in the present day, is an annoying distraction, but this novel managed to make both timelines equally compelling, despite the earlier one involving itself with much more dramatic stakes. The only criticism I have of this novel is that the plots are wrapped up very quickly and much too tidily, with unlikely happy endings bestowed with abandon. There's also a final twist that was ridiculous, but given how well-written and well-researched the rest of the novel is, these are minor quibbles.
I suggested this book for my real world book club. I ended up by being glad that I did.
I struggled to get into it.
It was really long. It was a slog for me.
It was a marathon. I took me 5 weeks to read but it felt like much,
I kept liking it more and more as I got further into the book.
Thanks to Rachel from my real world book club whose words encouraged me to continue. If not for her and definitely if not for the book club I would likely have at least temperately put it aside and not finished it.
It’s a masterpiece. I think it could also have used some editing.
The events/people in the two time periods were skillfully written and it worked great for me.
The characters will stay with me. They are memorable. I like plague stories and enjoyed that part of the story. I really appreciated all aspects of the story/stories.
At the end of the book (I read a Kindle e-edition borrowed from the library) there is a Readers Group Guide with 12 excellent discussion questions and there is also a Q & A with the author that I found interesting.
Just a few notable quotes:
“Lying had become her clothing—without it she’d freeze.”
“The greatest curse, he’d thought, was to be stuck in one’s own time—and the greatest power was to see beyond its horizons. Studying history had given him the illusion of observing safely from outside the trap. Only that’s what the world was: a trap. The circumstances you were born to, the situations you found yourself in—to dodge that fray was impossible. And what you did within it was your life.”
“Let the pages burn, for such be the fate of the soul, that all our striving be dust, and none in the bright living world ever know truly what once lived and died in another heart. And let me dispense with my foolish dream of leaving the tracery of my thought whole, perhaps to be read in an age in which there is greater kindness. It is not such an age. Let the truth be ash.”
I ended up kind of loving this book but given what a struggle it was to read it I cannot give it 5 stars. Given how good it is and how well written and well done and how much I finally ended up enjoying it I cannot give it less than 4 stars.