AHHHHH, that satisfying sigh that comes from recognising a rare and special novel is the only reaction I can think of that is fitting for The Weight of Ink by Rachel Kadish.
The Weight of Ink is a multi-layered novel that shows how non-fiction writers conduct research and how historians piece together information from rare documents. These are the types of experiences that are packaged in books such as Hidden Figures by Margot Lee Shetterly; Isabella, the Warrior Queen by Kirstin Downey or The Colour of Shadows by Judy Raymond.
Kadish’s novel slips back and forth in time from London in the 1660s to the London in the early 21st century as it tells the tale of two women: Ester Velasquez, an emigrant from Amsterdam who, through a personal tragedy, finds herself accidentally serving as the scribe for an important blind rabbi, and Helen Watt, an historian and expert in Jewish history. Just before Watt is about to retire, she is called to examine a treasure trove of 17th century documents hidden in a house.
Racing against time – both her own personal time restraints due to her impending retirement and those cast upon her from the university that is considering the possibility of purchasing the documents – Helen works with the help of Aaron Levy, an American graduate student to uncover the secrets hidden in piles of rare manuscripts.
The Weight of Ink might not seem like a tension-filled novel, but it is. On the verge of great discoveries, Watt and Levy must contain their excitement and hide their knowledge before someone “steals” their secrets. It is an agonising fear that non-fiction writers constantly face as they spend years of painstaking research while wondering if someone else will discover and expose the truths they are now uncovering.
Minute details becoming overwhelmingly important: a note in the margins, a revealing slip of the tongue centuries before in a letter reveal unexpected information that impacts on the plot.
The Weight of Ink crosses the borders of many genres: historical fiction, mystery and literary thriller to reach the essence of what it is to write non-fiction – especially that which relies on painstaking research.
It is both profound and entertaining; a rare combination of intellectual stimulation and meaningful entertainment. The Weight of Ink offers a rare glimpse – a literary portal into the silent, lonely and rewarding world of research that so many non-fiction writers experience in an unappreciated world that readers take for granted.
To know that experience of discovering hidden information and then setting off on a quest to discover more information to prove a point is a common quest shared by non-fiction writers. It makes non-fiction writing rewarding and fun, but it separates the writer from the reader in unimaginable and almost unexplainable ways.
Readers don’t generally care about the process of discovery that leads to a literary work. Generally, they only want the end product: the book. Non-fiction writers find their greatest joy in the discovery process. This might not seem important to those who read history, biography or any other non-fiction for that matter, but it is satisfying to know that someone like Kadish can cross those boundaries that separate reader and writer and offer a brilliant multi-tiered novel that recreates non-fiction writers’ experiences to readers.
The Weight of Ink is a beautifully written novel that offers a rare literary experience that no serious reader should miss.