Audra (Unabridged Chick)'s Reviews > The Luminist

The Luminist by David Rocklin
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's review
Aug 23, 2011

really liked it
bookshelves: cultural-confusion, heroine-amazing, heroine-unlikable, historical-figure-fictionalized, historicals, mood-bittersweet, mood-luxurious, mood-evocative, place-south-asia, tactile
Read from September 27 to October 05, 2011 — I own a copy

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.
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Comments (showing 1-5 of 5) (5 new)

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message 1: by Moira (new)

Moira Russell Oh wow, this sounds neat - I saw it at the bookstore last week but didn't pick it up.

Audra (Unabridged Chick) I was surprised at how much I enjoyed this as it's kind of heavy philosophical which I'm not always in the mood for -- and, I'll admit it, I'm a bit sexist about guys writing women -- but this one really worked for me!

message 3: by Moira (new)

Moira Russell I love historical fiction, and if we get Eligius' story too, that's really neat.

I'll admit it, I'm a bit sexist about guys writing women

NOT JUST YOU. (ohmigod did you ever read Witches of Eastwick? OH MY GOD.)

Audra (Unabridged Chick) I am proud to announce I have NEVER read Witches of Eastwick because I know I would be filled with immediate and unceasing hate!

message 5: by Moira (new)

Moira Russell Audra (Unabridged Chick) wrote: "I am proud to announce I have NEVER read Witches of Eastwick because I know I would be filled with immediate and unceasing hate!"

It is SO BAD. Then he wrote a sequel called WIDOWS of Eastwick, which was actually WORSE. (I think the description of a blowjob in that one won the Bad Sex award.)

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