The Weight of Ink
“Nowhere in the known world, it seemed to her, could she live as she'd been created: at once a creature of body and of mind. It was a precept so universal as to seem a law of nature: one aspect of a woman's existence must dominate the other. And a woman like Ester must choose, always, between desires: between fealty to her own self, or to the lives she might bring forth and nurture.” ― Rachel Kadish, The Weight of Ink
Two stories, centuries apart, are told in this engaging historical romance. The stories are linked by documents created in the seventeenth century, hidden away in a British country house, and ultimately discovered in the twenty-first century. In many ways a book about books, The Weight of Ink surprises with delights that are gradually revealed.
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.