Book Review: The Weight of Ink by Rachel Kadish

The Weight of Ink by Rachel Kadish

Published June 6, 2017 by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt

ISBN: 9780544866461

560 pages 

Genre: Historical Fiction

National Jewish Book Awards Winner

Rating: ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐

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SYNOPSIS:

This novel is set in two different time periods, 1660’s and the twenty-first century. Broken up into five parts, it follows two remarkable women, Helen Watt and Ester Velasquez. Helen is a 64-year old historian with a never-ending love for Jewish history, and Ester is a scribe for a blind Rabbi.

Ian and Bridgette Easton inherit a home from Bridgette’s aunt, and they are trying to renovate it as fast as they are able to. The house was built in 1661 by Portuguese Jews. It changed owners in 1698, 1704, and 1723. One wing of the house was torn down and rebuilt in in nineteenth-century. In 1910, the house was purchased by Bridgette’s family, and left to deteriorate, until it is passed down to Bridgette. When an electrician comes, he finds papers in this secret area that was blocked by a table. Unwilling to move or touch them, Ian decides to call his old, ailing professor, Helen Watt. Helen agrees and enlists an American grad student, Aaron Levy, to help her translate.

They are on the hunt to find out who “Aleph,” the scribe, actually is. It’s Helen’s last hurrah, but it ends up being a bigger deal than what was expected. Helen and Aaron end up butting heads quite a bit along the way.

This story is a historical fiction masterpiece, and unlike any book I have read. There are not a lot of historical fiction novels written about anything other than WWI or WWII. If you are looking to break free from that, this is your book next read.

REVIEW:

“Never underestimate the passion of a lonely mind.”

Characters | 

Helen Watt – A 64-year old professor who taught 17th century history at a University. She has Parkinson’s disease, and she walks with a cane. Her commitment to these papers is indescribable. Her love for Jewish history is unlike any other character in the novel. She wants to retire with a bang, and this is her way of doing so.

You learn that she has an old, but not forgotten, love interest named Dror, whose duty was to manage the volunteer’s adaptation to the army base. Their relationship was a roller coaster, but you could still find, deep down, the love that they had for each other. You knew that it pained Helen to not be with Dror, even in the twenty-first century.

“There is a hole where my heart once was. In its place, your history.”

Helen is strong, determined, and willful. She doesn’t let anyone walk all over her, even when they think that she is crazy. *Cough Cough* Aaron Levy *Cough Cough* I loved the parts of the book where she stood up for herself. Her words came out clear, precise, and without hesitation. She is definitely a strong female protagonist. She is an old woman that I would love to sit down and have a chat with. I would say we could drink tea, but I don’t like tea.

Ester Velasquez – “Aleph.”

She becomes a scribe for Rabbi HaCoen Mendes after her brother decides to leave and work elsewhere.

Aaron Levy was a Jewish American grad student. When he is told to help Helen translate the papers found in the Easton’s house, he is in the middle of trying to write a dissertation. A dissertation that everyone told him was not a good idea to write. He finds out later that it has already been discovered. I’m going to refrain from explaining what the dissertation was about, and the specifics of what was discovered.

When Helen first sees Aaron he reminds her of Dror a little bit, and it brings back memories. Aaron is also in love with

Ian and Bridgette Easton – Ian is Helen’s old student, and Bridgette is his wife. Bridgette will easily become one of your least favorite characters, other than Jonathan Martin, in this novel. It’s her way or the highway. Ian isn’t very smart, and he is basically a tool in the relationship. Even Helen thought so when she had him in class.

Rabbi HaCoen Mendes was not born blind. He had gone blind from the Inquisition of Lisbon when he was young. He became one of the first Jewish teachers after coming out of hiding, and taught pupils in Amsterdam into his old age. He then decided to move to London. There was a piece of work published posthumously by him, and it was an argument against Sabbateanism.

I didn’t particularly have strong feelings for the Rabbi. He seemed to be a decent man, but it was the 1660’s after all. Men and women have different roles. That’s just how it was. He had a scribe, a young girl, who wanted to break through those stereotypes. He played along for as long as he could, but there were some things he just couldn’t do for her.

Isaac Velasquez – Ester’s brother. He has a guilty conscious because of the tragic incident with his parents. You could only sympathize with the poor kid. I don’t want to spoil what happened, exactly, but it truly breaks my heart. He gives Ester an uplifting speech about women, but depressing for men.

“You’re like a coin made out of stone instead of metal. Or a house made out of honeycombs or feathers or maybe glass – something no one else in all the world would think to make a house of, Ester- something strange, but sound too. You’ve been like that always. But no matter all that, you’re still a woman. A woman can recover. Women aren’t” -he hesitated- “they’re not set. Not like a man is. A man has to be a hero or a . . . villain.”

I want to give him a big hug, and tell him that men don’t have to decide. Men and women are human. Made out of the same material – flesh and bone. It’s heartbreaking what happens to him. I loved his relationship with Ester. It was honest, but staggeringly supportive.

Catherine da Costa Mendes was a great-niece of the Rabbi. Her mother is Mary da Costa Mendes. I wasn’t fond of either of them. Mary took Catherine to find Ester because she needed a companion. The issue is that they wanted her to dress a certain way. Why ask her to be a companion to your daughter, then turn around and tell her she has to dress a certain way if she wants to be seen with her? It made no sense, and it irked me. Ester didn’t really have a choice though.

Story | 

There are absolutely no holes in the story that Kadish didn’t already want there. If I were to become a writer, she would be one of my influences. I love historical fiction, and I think that this book is a masterpiece in that genre, and I’d consider it just a masterpiece, period. The only critique I have is that it dragged a bit in the middle, but I was participating in The Reading Rush at the time. I already had a TBR pile chosen, and I just didn’t find myself ever picking this up. I was reading faster paced novels, and I am sad that I didn’t give it the best chance. I will definitely buy this and read it again in the future.

You don’t read about a story like this very often. I loved that it was split between present day, and the 1600’s when the letters were written. I loved all of the passion in the story, and the

Writing | 

The writing in this is phenomenal! I can’t stress that enough. If you aren’t used to historical fiction, then this is probably quite intimidating. It gets easier as you start to understand Kadish’s writing style, and what a beautiful writing style it is. You can tell what the characters are feeling, and it almost feels like you’re there with them. There’s just something about it that makes me happy. It was such a breath of fresh air to not only read this beast of a book, but to witness this kind of writing. This deserves any award it can get.

Overall | 

This novel is incredible, and I’ve never read such a solid book quite like this one. It makes you think what else a person can do. I started out giving this four-stars, but it’s too good not to give five-stars. Parts of Ester’s story just didn’t do it for me. I understand how important she is to the novel, but I wasn’t connected to her as much. I found Helen to be more mysterious and unknown. There was also the situation with Aaron and Marisa that kept me interested. I eventually want to go back and read it at my own pace. I borrowed this from the library, so I didn’t have all the time in the world to slowly read through it. Whenever I buy this, which I most certainly will, I want to annotate the crap out of it. This is a novel you immerse yourself in. You just have to take a deep breath before going in, and let it out when you’re done. I promise it’s satisfying.


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