It’s the year 2000 and a cache of documents from the 17th century written in Portuguese, Hebrew and English has been discovered in a London suburb. With the help of a graduate assistant, an elderly female history professor begins to uncover the mystery of their origins. For her, it’s a last chance to go out on a high note; for him, it’s a distraction from a Ph.D. thesis on Shakespeare that’s not going well.
But The Weight of Ink is not just about that discovery and what it reveals about the past, although what they learn is quite startling. Instead, Kadish tells us the story of the people who composed and preserved the documents themselves. Dry? Pedantic? Just the opposite.
The documents, which consist of household accounts as well as philosophical and religious commentaries, prove life-changing for the historian as well as her assistant. Over time, they uncover the mystery of their find, learning that the materials have been secreted in a house built by a wealthy Jewish family which had fled the Great Plague of London which took place in the middle of the 17th century when Jews have just been allowed to practice their faith openly in England after four centuries of being personae non gratae.
The historians learn the documents were composed on behalf of a rabbi who had been blinded during the Portuguese inquisition and who had been sent to London to bring knowledge of Judaism to the Jewish population.
Over time, the historians learn the scribe who recorded the rabbi’s words was a young orphaned woman––which would have been very usual given that few women were taught to read or write, much less at level capable of recording the words of a learned rabbi. Eventually an even more startling discovery is made about certain exchanges with major philosophers of the time.
The power of the written word is just one of the themes embodied in this epic novel that took the author 12 years to write. Kadish creatively explores what it would take for a young woman to live a life of the mind in a time when few women were taught to read or write. How would such a character reconcile her ususual role with the traditional demands on women, including the fact that she had no way to live if she remained unmarried.
Kadish also examines the choices women faced in the second half of the twentieth century in her history professor as well as those facing a young graduate student uncertain of his wants and needs.
Intellectual history, mystery, romance and historical fiction: these are just some of the genre categories The Weight of Ink could be classified under. Masterpiece satisfies them all.