Posted by: Lisa Hill | May 11, 2018

The Weight of Ink (2017), by Rachel Kadish

Just recently, I read a powerful affirmation of the value of contemporary historical fiction.  It’s an article at the Johannesburg Review of Books in which author Fred Khumalo had this to say:

…the historical novel, once the preserve of cosseted heroines and doughty heroes, warlike hordes pouring across bleak landscapes on foot or settlers making grim progress in small groups of ox wagons, is back in favour—but it is dressed in new clothes.

It comes, these days, with attitude and a breathless literary intensity; a fire in its belly. From the violent Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel to the revelatory The Spiral House by our own Claire Robertson; from the left-field and quirky Days Without End by Sebastian Barry to Zakes Mda‘s feisty Little Suns, historical novels are winning favour with the reading public, and winning important literary prizes.

In Mantel’s novel, which was awarded the 2009 Man Booker Prize and adapted into a popular television series, we meet Thomas Cromwell as we’ve never seen him before: the boy who grew up in an abusive home and became a noted adventurer, before he entered the history books. In Days Without End, the American Civil War becomes, not the story of generals and body counts, but a tale of survival, centred around an Irish boy who enlists and fights on the side of the Confederates because he is hungry and homeless.

In Little Suns, Mda tells the story of Malangana and his beloved Mthwakazi against the backdrop of the assassination of Hamilton Hope, a colonial magistrate who, in the late nineteenth century, worked to undermine local kingdoms in the Eastern Cape and bring the amaXhosa under the control of the British. It is because of the trials and tribulations of Malangana and Mthwakazi, which so vividly evoke the lives of those who suffered under colonial injustices, that the history of Magistrate Hope and his political manoeuvrings is made memorable for the reader.

Khumalo thinks that bringing untold stories alive in meticulously researched fiction can have political weight, and I can certainly see his point of view in my reading of Rachel Kadish’s novel The Weight of Water.  First of all, this novel is unputdownable, thoroughly enjoyable reading.  But it also makes a convincing case that although the written record is often silent, women of intelligence, determination and a passion for knowledge could have made a contribution to the intellectual record, and what’s more, ‘difficult’ women can still be silenced today.  The novel tells the story of a woman who through a series of circumstances has access to ground-breaking philosophical thought in the 1660s, and takes on a male identity in correspondence with the likes of Spinoza.

The Weight of Water is a dual narrative.  Helen Watt is a cranky old historian on the verge of unwanted retirement when she is called on to assess some old papers found amid renovations in a 17th century London house.  Her university acquires them, and she starts work on them with a brash young American post-graduate student called Aaron Levy. Both of them have personal ‘issues’ and Watt also has early stage Parkinson’s Disease, which she is doing her best to conceal from her patronising senior colleague – which is why she needs Levy.  (Her shaking hands make it difficult to handle fragile old papers.)  Levy is relieved to put aside his PhD about Shakespeare because it’s going nowhere, and despite himself he becomes intrigued as he uses his knowledge of C17th Portuguese and Hebrew to do the translations.  For Helen, it’s the chance to make a significant discovery and to prove that while her body is failing, her mind is still active.  For Aaron, it’s a chance to redeem himself intellectually and forge a path to a worthwhile career in history.

So, there is narrative tension as Helen and Aaron pursue their quest to make their discovery before other scholars can access them and before the papers become public.  Helen also needs to work at it while she still can, while Aaron gets distracted by a failed relationship with a girl in Israel.  These two flawed (and exasperating) characters compete for the reader’s attention, while the subject of their research, C17th Ester is equally ‘difficult’.  Rejecting one after the other potential suitors who she will need to support her once the rabbi dies, she struggles with the limitations of her gender – and her qualms about the morality of her deception in the house of the old rabbi who lost his sight under the Portuguese Inquisition’s torture.

And then there’s the Great Plague, and the Great Fire of London

There are so many insights to share in this novel of nearly 600 easy-to-romp-through pages, but I’ll confine myself to just a couple.  Ester envies the men of the Royal Society as she thumbs through their publication in the library of the rabbi’s wealthy patron:

Slowly she turned the pages of Philosophical Transactions. Like air, like water, such conversations belonged to these men of the Royal Society for the taking – while for the sake of her own halting correspondence she must deceive and betray, and labour for each flare of light to read by.  And yet here were these men parading their hypotheses and conclusions as though thoughts did not need to be clothed, but could walk about in the world naked and fearless.  Her envy warred with her wonder over such folly – for should the king die, [Charles II, restored to the monarchy after Cromwell’s Puritan reign] or should his fondness turn from one style of Christianity to another, these words lettered on the page might loft their author’s heads on pikes. (p.317)

Indeed yes.  Ester has seen London heads on pikes, and she is in exile from Portugal with a rabbi tortured for his beliefs by an intolerant version of Christianity. Spinoza has been excommunicated from the Jewish community in Amsterdam for his beliefs.  But she does not have a choice to express her ideas with prudence or not: her gender precludes not only publication, but also the possibility of discussion and sharing ideas.  And not only that: when she browses tempting philosophy books at a London stall, she cannot buy them because she has no money.  Her life is one of unpaid service to the rabbi as a scribe, and at times when he tries to prevent what she tries so hard to hide from him, she works as unpaid household help, along with Rivka, a refugee from the pogroms in Poland.

How readily the rules of female behaviour – gentleness, acquiescence, ever-mindfulness – turned to shackles.

So she thought, there must be declared a new kind of virtue: one that made the throwing off of such rules, and even such deceit as this required, praiseworthy.

Or at least forgivable. (p.329)

The Weight of Water is excellent reading.  Highly recommended!

PS A big thank you to Leonie, a volunteer at Melbourne Jewish Book Week and a mutual friend of Ros Collins.  Leonie recommended this book to me and I’m very glad I took her advice!

Author: Rachel Kadish
Title: The Weight of Ink
Publisher: Mariner Books (Houghton Miffin Harcourt), 2018, first published 2017
ISBN: 9781328915788
Source: Personal copy, bought from the Readings stall at the 2018 Melbourne Jewish Book Week.

Available from Fishpond: The Weight of Ink


  1. I understand what you’re saying, and I enjoy historical fiction about times, places I don’t otherwise have an opinion about. BUT. How do we know the history is accurate?

    Liked by 1 person

    • Well, most research (as it is in this one) is acknowledged in the back of the book. Footnotes or end notes in a NF history book are only as good as the access you can get to them, so mostly that’s a matter of trust too.


  2. Sounds like books like Possession – modern people researching old texts? Anyhow, sounds very interesting.

    I like this point “But it also makes a convincing case that although the written record is often silent, women of intelligence, determination and a passion for knowledge could have made a contribution to the intellectual record …” because I get cross when readers see, for example, a woman acting with agency in a past century and proclaim it as anachronistic. Strong, intelligent women didn’t suddenly appear with the suffragettes. They’ve always been around. I’m happy to see historical fiction novelists writing about such women, and I find it credible that such women existed.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Absolutely, yes, they were there, what we know about science tells us that IQ is evenly spread across gender, and we also know from bringing up our own children is that behavioural characteristics aren’t gender specific, even if we try to make them so. What was different was the extent to which women had to hide or could not express what they were doing.
      The blurb compares this book to Geraldine Brooks’ The People of the Book, but it’s a much better story than that. It’s the way the narrative tension works… as a reader, you just have to keep reading to find out what happens next.


      • Exactly, but there were always women who popped their heads above the ramparts weren’t there, despite the attempts to keep them down.

        I thought about The people of the book too, but this sounded like a more literary book like Possession. So long since I read that though, I have to admit.


        • Me too. I remember the person who recommended it to me, and how I loved it, but not really what it was about!


          • I recollect that it was about academics researching poets from the past, and told the story of those poets, and of the academics, and as I recollect there was “stuff” about academic ethics and honesty. But that’s it!! Terrible.


            • LOL Stop it, please, or I’ll be re-reading it instead of dealing with my TBR!

              Liked by 1 person

  3. This sounds like my ideal read. Thanks Lisa, not just for the review but for the commentary on the value of historical fiction.

    Liked by 1 person

    • It can be very powerful when it’s written with ‘fire in the belly’ and a solid backdrop of research.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. […] in recent reviews of historical fiction in the category that I call ‘hidden history’, (here and here and here and here) I’ve referred readers to Fred Khumalo’s article about how […]


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