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New historic novel weaves a literary mystery

“The Weight of Ink,” 

by Rachel Kadish, 

Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, $28 hardcover, June 6, 2017

Riveting narrative, well-honed characters, emotionally rewarding novel, rich detail, suspenseful.

These are the words reviewers use for this meticulously detailed historical novel that you cannot put down.

Kadish, who has written two other novels, lives outside Boston and teaches in the MFA program in creative writing at Lesley University.

In an interview for her publisher, Kadish said that the seed was this: “Virginia Woolf said that if Shakespeare had had an equally talented sister, she’d have died without writing a word.”  

When Kadish started writing this novel 10 years ago, she was “looking for the right historical setting for the story [she] wanted to tell.” She decided it would be the 17th century. In her research she learned about “iron gall ink that dissolves its way through paper so that the inked letters and words eventually burn their way through paper and you end up with a perfect paper cutout: a piece of 17th-century paper with holes in the shape of words that were once there.”

From that evolved: “What would it take for a woman like that to avoid that fate? So I wrote something like a literary mystery: How would my character Ester Velasquez — a child of Inquisition refugees from the same community as Spinoza — have done it? Through what disguises, what subterfuge and at what great a personal cost might a 17th century woman have refused to die without writing a word?”

What she ended up with is a story line that moves between 2000, when Helen Watt, a 64-year-old historian nearing retirement is called in by a London suburban couple whose electrician found a cache of 17th-century Jewish documents while they were renovating the house to become an art gallery. Watt then hires an American young man, Aaron Levy, working on his Ph.D. and knowledgeable in Portuguese and Hebrew, to act as her assistant.  

The story then alternates between Watt and Levy and the 16th-century home of Rabbi Moshe HaCoen Mendes, blinded in the Inquisition, his housekeeper, Rivka, and a young woman, Esther Velasquez, who immigrated from Amsterdam and becomes the rabbi’s scribe in the 17th century.

Without revealing any more of the plot, we learn about life in the 17th century, 17th-century London, the refugees of the Portuguese Inquisition in Amsterdam and 17th-century philosophy. For the sections in that period, Kadish uses modern sentence structure but strictly period-accurate vocabulary.

The contemporary story line also has some jumping back and forth between Watt and her life situation and Levy’s day-to-day life.

In addition to being a compelling story, the storytelling style of Kadish’s writing propels you on.

This is a truly wonderful read on an untypical theme. 

Sybil Kaplan is a journalist/foreign correspondent, book reviewer and author. She is author of an autobiographical account of her first 10 years in Israel — “Witness to History, Ten Years as a Woman Journalist in Israel.” She and her husband live in Jerusalem, where she also works as a food writer, leads English-language walks in Jerusalem’s Jewish produce market, Machaneh Yeudah, and writes kosher restaurant features for the local website, Janglo.net.