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…But I will tell you what I learned after I lost my sight, in the first days as I came to understand how much of the world was banned from me-for my hand would never again turn the pages of a book, nor be stained with the sweet, grave weight of ink, a thing I had loved since first memory….
Three stories, with centuries between them, come together in Rachel Kadish’s The Weight of Ink.
Helen Watt is struggling. On the verge of retirement, her health failing, she belongs to one of those rare breed of historians, who has devoted their lives to keeping history alive. The Richmond discovery, a cache of Jewish documents from the seventeenth century, will probably be the last set of aged documents that she will ever handle.
“History can change the world”, is what Aaron Levy, a Jewish-American graduate student, believes. For the moment though, he is struggling with his dissertation on the connections between members of Shakespeare’s circle and Inquisition-refugee Jews of Elizabethan London. His professional and personal life seems to have stagnated and a chance to assist Helen comes as a welcome distraction.
The documents, in Latin, Hebrew and Portuguese, are from the Interregnum period, with the first letter dated 1657. Scribed by the mysterious ‘Aleph’, Rabbi Moseh HaCoen Mendes’s letters to other rabbis across Europe pertain to the Inquisition and the position of Jews in Amsterdam, Florence and Elizabethan England. Hidden between the household accounts and letters are the musings of ‘Aleph’ and references to Spinoza’s “Deus sive Natura: God or Nature”. What might have been considered heresy in Aleph’s days, excites Helen and Aaron, leading them to discover the true identity of the mysterious scribe and also meet Ester Velasquez, an orphan who was taken in by the rabbi.
Ester’s past shades her present; “The girl has her mother’s beauty and must be overseen strictly —for with the mother’s blood so visible in her, the girl’s obedient ways might yet crack to reveal the same unruliness of spirit.” Labouring through her household chores, with no desire or passion, mending with her cramped stitches, Ester sometimes steals a moment’s reprieve to listen to the rabbi and his students in the room at the foot of the stair. A tide of words and reasoning lifts her and then she returns to the drudgery of her life, a life where girls cannot pursue their love for words.
A beautifully interwoven tale of struggle, loss, love and redemption.
What shines through is the reverence for the written word.
Realistic and empathic characterisation, balanced with well-researched historical references, makes this novel a deeply emotional and pleasurable read.