Wednesday, October 5, 2011

The Luminist by David Rocklin

Title: The Luminist: A Novel
Author: David Rocklin

Genre: Fiction (Early 19th century / Colonial India / Photography / Female Artists / Family & Parenting)
Publisher/Publication Date: Hawthorne Books (10/11/2011)
Source: Pump Up Your Book!

Rating: Liked -- but I loved it at moments!
Did I finish?: YES!
One-sentence summary:
Reading Challenges: Historical Fiction, South Asian

Do I like the cover?: I love love loooove it. Isn't it so striking? It so perfectly captures the book's emphasis on early photography, and given that the main character was inspired by Julia Margaret Cameron, it seems fitting to use a photo of Cameron's.

I'm reminded of...: A.S. Byatt, Mary Doria Russell, Dava Sobel

First line: The noises outside her window were of wind and the near sea, of clay chimes kilned to crystalline tones.

Buy, Borrow, or Avoid?: Borrow or buy -- this is a striking book.

Why did I get this book?: When I saw the comparison to photographer, Julia Margaret Cameron, I knew I had to read this one!

Review: Loosely inspired by the life of British photographer Julia Margaret Cameron, The Luminist tells the story of Catherine Colebrook, a British woman stationed in Ceylon with her aging diplomat husband. Mourning the death of her son's twin, she becomes obsessed with the science of photography. Rocklin captures the breathless zeal of the 19th century hobbyists, who had the luxury of time, money, and help to pursue -- or in Catherine's case -- perfect a craft. Photography was in its nascent stages, in which every step was a series of variables, barely understood. For Catherine, it is an opportunity to capture life in a way portraiture can't.

Assisting in her endeavors is a young Tamil man named Eligius. Much like Karen Blixen and her beloved Farah, Eligius becomes a crucial companion and assistant to Catherine's work. The relationship between the white colonialist and native is heavily romanticized in literature and even if it reflects a historical reality, I'm still often uncomfortable with frequently unacknowledged power and privilege at play in such a relationship. What saved this book from having a kind of White Man's Burden-ness was that Eligius' story was told alongside Catherine's. After his father was killed by British soldiers, Eligius grows up in a village simmering with anger and resentment. He's encouraged to steal from the British to fund insurrectionists but he's impatient with anyone commanding him, Tamil or British. Captivated by photography himself, he struggles with his family's wishes, his own desires, and the weight of the watchful eye of the British who both need and fear the Tamil.

The mood of the story is mute anger and simmering sadness; the characters brusque and unlikeable. But I found something in them, the story, and Rocklin's writing that moved me. Despite the raw, vulnerable hostility (or maybe because of), I wanted to follow Catherine and Eligius' story. I felt some sympathy, some bewilderment, some frustration, and even impatience, but I also found flashes of real beauty in the unapologetic, bald honesty of the characters. This was an era of unspoken feelings, sublimated desires, willful ignorance, and naive arrogance -- but the story dips beneath that controlled veneer to reveal the unvarnished grace of growing up, finding one's passion, or learning to hold one's self in full regard.

The narrative style is dense at times, but not heavy or overwrought. It's substantial and solid, bracing the story, and I found myself frequently rereading passages to enjoy a phrase or mull on a sentence's meaning. The narrative style is philosophical. Dense -- but not clunky. So much detail is conveyed in a paragraph but I never felt exhausted by it. I'm having a hard time articulating it. The style felt familiar - very literary, a la Byatt and Rushdie - although not quite so deft as those two. But good nonetheless: I was entertained and my brain had something to work at while I read.

A meaty literary historical novel, especially good for those who like fiction that tackles religion, loss, identity, motherhood, the creative urge, colonialism, conflict, love, inspiration ... the list of themes could go on and on, but I'll stop. This is a unique debut and I'm excited for Rocklin's next offering.


  1. I had not heard of this book before, but am glad that you had such a great reaction to it. It does indeed sound powerful and intense, and I am thinking that I may need to read it. This was a wonderful review. Very thoughtful and precise. Thanks for sharing it with us today!

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  3. This book is new to me too, but it sounds so intriguing! I'm hoping the library has a copy...

  4. Heather & Carrie: The publisher is new to me -- seems small -- but the book is a treat to old (paperback with French flaps, my favorite!). Plus, it's a delightfully deep book, very thoughtful and philosophical. I think you both would enjoy it. (I'm awaiting word whether a giveaway is going to be possible -- cross your fingers!)

  5. I hadn't heard of this book until your review, and at first glance, I didn't think it was going to interest me. However, your review has me thinking it's worth checking out.

  6. I mention you and your review of David's book on my blog today:
    Like your site!

  7. Not a fan of the cover, nope. But what I do like is that you always presents books I have not heard about before :D

  8. this sounds very interesting. thanks for the review

  9. I haven't read "The Luminist" yet either, but with YOUR thumbs-up and the the comparison to A.S. Byatt's work I surely will. Thank you. And thank you for GOBSMACKED.

  10. Wow, this does sound good. I love books that have you rereading passages. I'll have to check into this one.