July 2017 | Rebecca Rego Barry

"The Weight of Ink"

9780544866461_lres copy.jpgDid I choose this book by its cover? Yes and no. It would be more fair to say that I chose to read this novel because of a fascinating short essay by the author published last month wherein she talks about the dust jacket art and her quest to determine what type of manuscript (language, century of origin) is featured in its design. But it is a pretty cover--and one that, along with its title, The Weight of Ink, beckons bibliophiles.

Weighing in at 560 pages, Rachel Kadish's absorbing new novel, published in June by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, is what we would today call a #longread. There are two main narratives that parallel each other: both set in London, one in the early twenty-first century, the other during the 1660s. It begins with historian Helen Watt's holy grail tale: a telephone call from a former student describing a cache of old books and manuscripts discovered during a home renovation. Professor Watt's initial doubts about the find are quickly dispelled by the sight of seventeenth-century documents written in Hebrew and Portuguese. She enlists the help of a young American graduate student and sets to work on the mystery under the staircase.

Enter Ester Velasquez, an orphan from Amsterdam who became that most unlikely of creatures in early modern England: an educated woman, and beyond that even, a scribe for a prominent rabbi in London. Reading philosophy, writing letters, and fetching books from the bindery or booksellers' stalls, Ester hones her intellect and, consequently, flirts with danger. "Something had sprung alive in her these years--slowly at first, then more powerfully with every passing day. Surely the rabbi must know it? Something had seized her. The city, its books."   

We know the feeling!

Librarians might gripe at how they are portrayed--playing favorites, wearing 'archival' gloves, and confiscating pencils. That aside, Kadish's cast is bold and complex, particularly the seventeenth-century characters, and she successfully immerses her readers into their lives. As bibliofiction goes, where lingering over marbled paper and leather bindings is always welcome, The Weight of Ink is top-tier.   

Image courtesy of HMH.