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The Luminist by David Rocklin
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The Luminist (2011)

by David Rocklin

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I really wanted to like this book, a fictional account of a character based on real life 19th century photographer Julia Cameron. I liked the idea of the story and the exotic locales but the writing made the reading so slow. I kept putting this down in frustration and would keep trying at other times but I just could not get into it. I am disappointed because I had high hopes. I hope others can enjoy this novel. ( )
  bookmagic | May 8, 2012 |
Victorian England and Colonial Ceylon (later Sri Lanka) is the setting of this book. Catherine Colbrook and her love of photography, which was in its infancy, is the basis of this novel. The struggles of the natives in the face of British supremacy supplies the tension, yet it is the photography that joins Catherine and a native son in an enduring friendship. This novel is told in a haunting prose style that takes some getting used to but once one does the novel unfolds into an amazing story. ( )
  Beamis12 | Nov 28, 2011 |
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. ( )
  unabridgedchick | Oct 5, 2011 |
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IN COLONIAL INDIA, at a time of growing friction between the ruling British and the restless Indian populace, a Victorian woman and her young Tamil Indian servant defy convention, class, and heartbreak to investigate what is gained - and lost - by holding life still. Suggested by the life and work of photographic pioneer Julia Margaret Cameron, The Luminist filters 19th century Ceylon through the lens of an English woman, Catherine Colebrook and a 15 year old Tamil boy, Eligius Shourie. Left fatherless by soldiers, Eligius is brought as a servant to the Colebrooks' neglected estate. In the shadow of Catherine's obsession to arrest beauty - to select a moment from the thousands comprising her life in Ceylon and hold it apart from mere memory - Eligius transforms into her apprentice in the creation of the first haunting photographs in history.
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In colonial India at a time of growing friction between the ruling British and the restless Indian populace, a Victorian woman and her young Tamil Indian servant defy convention, class, and heartbreak to investigate what is gained--and lost--by holding life still.… (more)

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