Who can resist a love story?
Who can resist a love story, set in a library?
It's two great tastes, that taste great together: Rachel Kadish's The Weight of Ink.
Well, I'm not really being fair. It's not set in a library, it's set (partially) in a Rare Manuscripts Conservation Laboratory.
In a library.
Well, it's also set in a kibbutz in Israel.
Oh, and it's also set in 17th century London, during the time of the Inquisition, and the Plague, and yet also, the time of the birth of modern Philosophy.
It's a book about Baruch Spinoza, who you might never have spent much time thinking about (certainly I never did), and it's a book about being Jewish in England during a time when that was only barely legal.
And it's DEFINITELY a love story.
But it's rather a non-traditional love story, not least because a lot of it is about People Who Love Books, both now and then, back in the days when a book was still a thing that People Who Love Books built by hand, with agonizing care.
Our heroes and heroines are the sort of people who know immediately what a rare thing it is to find a 350 year old book, or even writing of any sort:
Her eyes were on the book. "Iron gall ink," she said after a moment.
Following her gaze, he understood that the damage had been done before he ever touched the ledger. The pages were like Swiss Cheese. Letters and words excised at random, holes eaten through the page over the centuries by the ink itself.
And they are the sort of people who can survive the most horrible tortures and injuries, and yet the thing that pains them the most is the loss of books:
Before she knew what she was saying, she turned to the rabbi. "What do you see," she said, "behind the lids of your eyes?"
For the first time there was unease beneath his silence. She felt a hard, thin satisfaction she was ashamed of.
"I shall not, at this moment, answer this question," he said. "But I will tell you what I learned after I lost my sight, in the first days as I came to understand how much of the world was now banned from me -- for my hands would never again turn the pages of a book, nor be stained with the sweet, grave weight of ink, a thing I had loved since first memory. I walked through rooms that had once been familiar, my arms outstretched, and was fouled and thwarted by every obstacle in my path. What I learned then, Ester, is a thing that I have been learning ever since."
The literary technique of trying to tell two stories, one old and set in the past, and one new and set in the current time, is well-known, and although it can be powerful, it can also be a bit of a crutch.
It also leads to a situation in which the book is packed full of characters, and can be a tad confusing when you jump back and forth, although I felt like, overall, The Weight of Ink pulled this off well, and did not over-burden the reader.
Some of the characters are extraordinarily compelling, and front and center is surely Ester, the 17th-century orphan girl who comes to live in the household of a blind, dying rabbi.
Other characters are, well, not quite so gripping, such as the young heiress Mary, or the extremely annoying graduate student Aaron.
But for my money, my favorite was the aging scholar Helen, absorbed in the study of history, dragging herself out of bed every day, overcoming her advanced Parkinson's disease, to get into the library and spend her time with The Books:
For a long time, Helen sat in the silent laboratory. All around her, on shelves and tables, on metal trays and in glass chambers, lay a silent company of paper: centuries old, leaf after leaf, torn or faded or brittle. Pages inked by long-dead hands. Pages damaged by time and worse. But they -- the pages -- would live again.
The climactic scene in which Helen must go to face the Dean, who waits for her to deliver her requested resignation, is remarkably more vivid and compelling and heart-wrenching than you could possibly imagine.
A large part of The Weight of Ink is the painstaking detective story of the literary historians, discovering The Books, poring over their contents, and then, slowly, but surely, reading between the lines to understand what they really say.
But The Weight of Ink succeeded, for me, because it balances that detective story quite nicely with the fill-in-the-blanks story of Ester and her adventures in London.
Bit by bit, page by page, Aaron and Helen come to understand what Ester's life was like, and what she did and thought and felt.
And yet, how could they? How could any of us know what it was like to be a young girl, alone in a city of tragedies at a time of horrors, still consumed by those most elemental of human passions:
"No," she said. "No, it's not that way. I choose with my heart, and my heart is for you." As she said it she felt her heart insisting within her ribs -- indeed, for the first time in her life she almost could see her heart, and to her astonishment it seemed a brave and hopeful thing: a small wooden cup of some golden liquid, brimming until it spilled over all -- the rabbi breathing in his bed, the dim candlelight by which Ester had so long strained at words on the page, the dead girl with her father in the cart. All that was beautiful and all that was precious, all of it streaming with sudden purpose here -- to this place where they now stood.
And, of course, in and around it all, there is that Birth of Modern Philosophy business, with plenty of Hobbes and Descartes and Spinoza.
And whether that's your thing, or not, probably depends a lot on how you feel about Philosophy.
The folly of her own words astonished her. She pulled the papers back from over the water, and read more, and as she read she saw the enormity of her blindness. In her arrogance and loneliness she'd thought she understood the world -- yet its very essence had been missing from her own philosophy.
The imperative -- she whispered it to herself -- to live. The universe was ruled by a force, and the force was life, and live, and live -- a pulsing, commanding law of its own. The comet making its fiery passage across their sky didn't signify divine displeasure, nor did it have anything to say of London's sin; the comet's light existed for the mere purpose of shining. It hurtled because the cosmos demanded it to hurtle. Just as the grass grew in order to grow. Just as the disfigured woman must defy Bescos, who'd consider her unfit for love; just as Ester herself had once, long ago, written because she had to write.
But I suspect that most People Who Love Books are also people who are quite interested in Philosophy, so I suspect that it's actually a pretty fair bet that if you want to read a love story (actually four or five different love stories, as it turns out) set in a library (yes, yes, I know, a Rare Manuscripts Conservation Laboratory), then you probably want to read a fair amount about the early days of Rationalism and its conflicts with the major Religious Philosophies of the day.
Or maybe you just want to read a great love story!
Oh, to heck with it: go read The Weight of Ink. It's well worth your time.