A Woman in 17th-Century London Finds Her Destiny
The Weight of Ink By Rachel Kadish (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 367 pp. $28)
History and mystery converge in this intriguing novel by Rachel Kadish, whose fluid prose is ignited by flashes of poetry. In her complex protagonist, Ester Velasquez, she has created a character inspired by Virginia Woolf’s imagined Judith Shakespeare, a 17th-century woman of talent and intellect and sister of the Bard who, Woolf speculates, would have died young without utilizing her gifts. Kadish’s Jewish heroine exists in a narrative that leaps across centuries and continents.
Ester, an immigrant to England from the Portuguese Jewish community of Amsterdam, serves as scribe to her benefactor, the brilliant and compassionate Rabbi HaCoen Mendes, blinded by Inquisition torturers. But Ester’s writings go well beyond the rabbi’s dictation to encompass her own clandestine correspondence with leading philosophers of that period. Each letter she composes in HaCoen Mendes’s name is an exquisitely phrased treatise outlining her emergent beliefs. The only clue to her persona is the barely discernible Hebrew letter aleph at the bottom of each document.
Concealed for centuries in a genizah in a mansion in Richmond, a suburb of London, her letters are serendipitously discovered by a 21st-century non-Jewish scholar, Helen Watt. Elderly, ailing Helen, devoted to the study of Jewish history, immediately recognizes the importance of the delicate documents and realizes that they are endangered by the toxicity of the very ink they are written with. With the assistance of an American Jewish graduate student, Aaron Levy, she undertakes the arduous task of discovering the true identity of aleph and recreating her world. Their work is invigorated by an academic rivalry with a competing team of historians.
The narrative proceeds in alternating chapters: Ester’s life and experiences chronicled in her own voice, followed by the contemporary narrative that adds Aaron and Helen’s stories. London, both past and present, is almost a corporeal presence as the tales unfold with cleverly scattered clues and gathering suspense.
Jewish history informs every chapter. The Inquisition, the pseudo- messianism of Sabbatai Zevi, the serial expulsions of Jewish communities, the Holocaust, Israel’s War of Independence, the twin episodes of Jewish martyrdom at Masada in Israel and in England’s York, all contribute to the kaleidoscope of Jewish tragedy and redemption. Historic personalities emerge, such as chronicler Glückel of Hameln, and Benedict de Spinoza’s persona and philosophy are pivotal to the story.
Helen’s romantic experience as a young woman in the nascent State of Israel explains her lifelong academic involvement with Jewish history. Aaron achieves rare insights—personal, academic and, ultimately, Jewish. And against all odds, Ester survives the horrific plague that decimated England and is vouchsafed the intellectual life denied the fictional Judith Shakespeare. That her happy ending is based on authorial contrivance is a forgivable flaw.
And the author does include Shakespeare. As a bonus, Kadish introduces a letter from the Jewish authority in Amsterdam to HaCoen Mendes describing Ester’s grandmother, who supposedly had an illicit affair with an unnamed English gentile. In words plucked from Shakespeare’s sonnet 144, it reads: “A beauty to tempt away man’s better angel…her power tempts the most righteous among us,” thus raising the possibility, however, remote, “that Ester’s grandmother, a Portuguese Jewess, might have been Shakespeare’s conjectural Dark Lady.” What a delicious speculative nugget to add to a book already packed with romance and drama. All kudos to Rachel Kadish for this literary gift.
Gloria Goldreich’s most recent book is The Bridal Chair.