The Weight of Ink
By Rachel Kadish
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 592 pages, $28
By now, it’s a familiar trope: stories set in the past and the present, at once parallel and intersecting, linked by writing that survives through the centuries. The many forerunners of Rachel Kadish’s new historical fiction, “The Weight of Ink,” include Tom Stoppard’s play “Arcadia,” and such novels as Dara Horn’s “A Guide for the Perplexed.”
If Kadish’s narrative structure is not innovative, neither are the points she makes about the social constraints on women’s lives and self-expression.
Nevertheless, to her credit, Kadish (whose previous novels include “From a Sealed Room”) knows how to create a propulsive plot peopled with distinctive characters. “The Weight of Ink” has enough mysteries to keep readers turning pages, and a fair amount of thematic and intellectual heft. Anyone interested in the life of Baruch Spinoza, who was expelled by Amsterdam’s Jewish community for his heretical views; the fate of Jews during the Spanish and Portuguese Inquisition, or the vagaries of archival research will find this novel rewarding.
The central protagonist is 64-year-old Helen Watt, a Jewish studies professor at a British university. The modern action takes place in London and environs over a few months in 2000 and 2001. On the cusp of retirement, battling Parkinson’s disease and her own solitude, Watt longs for the consolation of one last great scholarly coup. Her chief article of faith is that “history, soulless god though it was, never failed to offer what must be understood.”
Though not Jewish herself, Watt keeps an image of Masada in her office. The site of a famous first-century C.E. Roman siege that led to the storied martyrdom of the fortress’s Jewish defenders, it is a reminder of Watt’s passionate romance with an Israeli officer, Dror, whose life of service and sacrifice she ultimately decided not to share. Stern, forbidding, insightful and filled with regrets, Watt is prickly in a stereotypically British way.
The novel’s 17th-century protagonist is Ester Velasquez, an orphaned Jewish woman from Amsterdam who has joined the household of a London-based rabbi. Velasquez has a first-rate intellect, normal sexual desires and philosophical inclinations she can’t quite suppress.
But gender conventions enforce some hard choices. Must she eschew love and marriage — not to mention the trappings of femininity — in order to think and write? “How readily the rules of female behavior — gentleness, acquiescence, ever-mindfulness — turned to shackles,” Velasquez tells herself. Like Watt, who will gradually uncover her epistolary legacy and unravel her story, Velasquez is at once tough-minded and plagued by frustration.
Watt learns of the existence of a potentially valuable cache of documents secreted in a 17th-century house. The papers turn out to have belonged to a rabbi blinded by the Inquisition, HaCoen Mendes, a Portuguese Jewish refugee living in London.
In the absence of other students and acolytes, Mendes, a remarkably enlightened man, has enlisted Velasquez as his scribe — a rare role for a woman. Mingled with quotidian household accounts are intriguing letters, to and from the rabbi, that appear to shed light on the 17th-century Diaspora belief in the advent of a Messiah. Also, there are samples of what appears to be Velasquez’s own writing under an assumed (male) name — a disguise that may be a prelude to an extraordinary philosophical correspondence.
To help translate and study the fragile documents, written mostly in Hebrew, Latin and Portuguese, Watt enlists an ambitious American postgraduate student, Aaron Levy. Levy is grateful for a break from his own stalled and perhaps hopeless dissertation on the ties between Shakespeare’s circle and the London Jewish community.
But Levy is also distracted. A handsome, somewhat arrogant flirt, he has been leveled by love. He clings to memories of a brief liaison with a fellow student, Marisa, now living in Israel. Via an abrupt email, she makes clear that she wants nothing more to do with him.
As scholars, Levy and Watt are well paired, but in all other respects they are a classic odd couple. Yet as they battle obstacles to their research, including competition from another team of academics, they develop mutual respect, even affection.
Kadish interweaves their story with that of Velasquez, who is intent on making her way in plague-ridden London as both a woman and a Jew. Connecting the two stories is the trove of documents, as well as yet another instance of blighted love.
Kadish conveys both the joys of intellectual disputation and a caution about the barriers to historical certitude. Interpreting writing from the past can be an exercise in misreading and misunderstanding; documents contain both errors and lies, and hasty conclusions may well be mistaken. But Watt’s own instincts, drawn from her life experience, turn out to be spot-on. “Never,” she says, “underestimate the passion of a lonely mind.”
Julia M. Klein is a Forward contributing book critic. Follow her on Twitter, @JuliaMKlein