Set in London of the 1660s and of the early twenty-first century, The Weight of Ink is the interwoven tale of two women of remarkable intellect: Ester Velasquez, an emigrant from Amsterdam who is permitted to scribe for a blind rabbi, just before the plague hits the city; and Helen Watt, an ailing historian with a love of Jewish history.
As the novel opens, Helen has been summoned by a former student to view a cache of seventeenth-century Jewish documents newly discovered in his home during a renovation. Enlisting the help of Aaron Levy, an American graduate student as impatient as he is charming, and in a race with another fast-moving team of historians, Helen embarks on one last project: to determine the identity of the documents’ scribe, the elusive “Aleph.”
At almost 600 pages, you would think you would get bored slogging through all those pages. You would be wrong, ever so wrong.
It uses the structure of alternating plotlines from an historical period and from the current time period. In some books, this technique is annoying and doesn’t seem to quite work, but in The Weight of Ink, it surely does. Its two stories, OK three stories, are about London right before and during the plague years of the mid 1600s, the historical issues of religion and its kings, some of which kicked out all the Jews, and others of which welcomed them back, and what it was like to live there as a Jew in that era, and what it was like to be a woman in that era, and about the modern day world of academe and how historians think about and treat historical literary finds, and about the private lives of two modern day people, a young male post grad trying to find himself, and an about-to-be-retired historian of some note, and what has gone before to make her who she is.
Fabulous book. The title is from a musing of the 17th century blind rabbi, who mourns the now lost ability to write his thoughts, “I came to understand how much of the world was now banned from me — for my hands would never again turn the pages of a book, nor be stained with the sweet, grave weight of ink….”
The phrase also represents the weight the written word has to bring to live historical times and the lives of those who lived them.