“The Weight Of Ink” by Rachel Kadish

“The Weight Of Ink” was the fifth book I’ve read for my 20 for 20 reading challenge (to read twenty books from my TBR pile that are 600 pages/20 hours long or more) and it’s the first one where I’ve felt, “this is a book that was worth every minute I’ve spent on it.”

The book follows two passionately intellectual women, Ester Velasquez and Helen Watt, separated by more than three hundred years but connected by words inked on paper and a need to know what is true.

Ester, orphaned in her teens, has been taken into the household of a blind rabbi and has moved with him from Amsterdam to 1660s London where, going against tradition, the rabbi permits her to become his scribe. In doing so, he ignites in her a hunger for the life of the mind which, as a woman, she should have no access to.

In 2000, Helen, sixty-four years old, in failing health and approaching a mandatory retirement that will end her career as a History Professor specialising in Jewish history, is invited by a former student to view a set of seventeenth-century Jewish documents that were discovered during a renovation of his house in Richmond. These papers lead Helen to piece together not just the truth of Ester’s life but of her own.

The writing is accessible, beautiful, calm and clear. I quickly found myself being immersed in the worlds of both of these women even though they were equally alien to me. Yet, by the time I was halfway through the book, I felt as if I had shouldered the weight of disappointment and sadness of each of the women. Ester and Helen are both serious, passionate, strong women who have few good choices available to them.

The pace was slow but doesn’t drag. The circumstances are deeply sad without being melodramatic. I admired Rachel Kadish’s ability to engage me in the passion for thought that both women share. I was also impressed at her ability to add an I-NEED-to-know-what-happens-next element to both timelines. Most of all I admired the humanity and compassion with which the story was told.

I found the experience was quite intense so I could only listen to a few hours at a time before taking a break. This meant that I spent four weeks with Ester and Helen in my head. I came to value the time I spent with them.

I also enjoyed the time I spent with Aaron Levy, the American grad-student Helen enlists to help her. He’s not the kind of man I know well and initially I found him hard to like or even understand. His journey of the mind and spirit echoes that of Ester and Helen. He also has to come to terms with the truth of where his passion lies. I thought this was very well done.

I recommend investing your time in “The Weight Of Ink”. If it’s available to you, I recommend the audiobook version which is narrated with great skill by Corrie James.

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