Reviews for Luminist

ForeWord Magazine Reviews 2011 September/October

The Luminist, by David Rocklin, explores the struggle to find one's place in the world when confined by society to an ill-fitting role in which one's dreams and abilities outshine what is acceptable--and what it means to break free from that imprisonment.

Set in mid-1800s Ceylon (now Sri Lanka), the book follows Catherine Colebrook, a woman fascinated by the dawning of scientific photography, and a teenage servant boy named Eligius. Catherine's passion to capture a singular moment in time begins with an image of her own son's still-birth. From that point, she maintains a controversial relationship with a fellow scientist, risking marriage and reputation.

Amid growing unrest that threatens British authority, Eligius enters Catherine's home and challenges her stereotypical thinking as she slowly recognizes his true character. He helps her advance the exploration of photography, which doesn't yet work, while uncovering his own scientific gifts. Along the way, Eligius must discover who he is. He doesn't fit in with the English colonials, who leave his people destitute, or with the angry men of his village, who try to coerce him to steal and kill. He fights to maintain his moral center, even as he labors to help his people and protect the family he serves. Meanwhile, Catherine also strives to maintain her true convictions, even when they jeopardize her husband Charles's career and the family's financial solvency.

Through it all, Catherine, Charles, and Eligius confront injustices despite having everything going against them: Charles's frail heath and diminished respect, Catherine's womanhood and lack of financial backing, and Eligius's place as a powerless servant. Most important, however, they must stop the murderous intents of Ceylon's insurgents, determined to destroy them all.

Rocklin reveals another aspect of the Victorian era and causes readers to question how hard they would fight to remain true to themselves. Although the ending feels rushed in spots, the book is otherwise well paced and compelling. It is often stark--fitting for the time and setting--yet his occasionally vivid descriptions spotlight powerful moments. Danger boils under the surface throughout, ready to explode. The Luminist highlights a moment in history when the world is transforming and the very fabric of society is being stretched in unforseen ways. It serves as a snapshot as vivid as those Catherine tries to create, intended to cause people to see things in new ways.

© 2011 ForeWord Reviews. All Rights Reserved.

Kirkus Reviews 2011 October #1
An absolute spellbinder. In Victorian-era Ceylon, amidst colonial strife and natural splendor, taboo love unfolds. Debut novelist Rocklin blends the love-and-war sweep of Dr. Zhivago with the Heart of Darkness depth of Joseph Conrad. Fictionalizing the bio of 19th-century photographic innovator Julia Margaret Cameron, he creates, in Catherine Colebrook, an artist-as-mystic. "I brought forth the holy. I made light stop," she marvels as she develops her portraits, luminous in beauty and far in technical advance of European (male) lensmen. As sorcerer's apprentice, Eligius, the family's 15-year old Tamil servant, not only facilitates her work but is compelled into a dangerous fascination with the Colebrooks—Catherine, his mother figure and aesthetic soul mate, daughter Julia, a Pre-Raphaelite lovely he adores from afar, and father, Charles, an aging, ailing imperialist functionary whose good heart but weak spirit moves and confounds him. The danger is psychologically and politically complex. His own father murdered for seeking Ceylonese rights, Eligius fears that, while Colebrook kindness melts his rage at everything Brit, his tenderness toward this foreign family may betray his native soul. His bond, too, with Catherine may further imperil her marriage, as Charles already dismisses her art. And when an arrogant English artist begins courting Julia, Eligius simmers. If Rocklin crafts plot with a Homeric "what'll-happen-next" intensity, he's also a prose poet. From his deftly evocative chapter titles—"The Night, Moving," "Thirty Breaths"—to his painterly eye (cloth described as "white as blanched bone, soft")—he's capable not just of beauty but of aphorism: "Even God was born of fury at cold, at death, at what was always lost." History, art, celebratory feminism, rapturous writing and true suspense— this is a staggeringly good book. Copyright Kirkus 2011 Kirkus/BPI Communications.All rights reserved.

Publishers Weekly Reviews 2011 August #3

Rocklin's debut novel, a case of style over content, was inspired by Julia Margaret Cameron's work in the new field of photography in the 19th century. Catherine Colebrook travels to Ceylon to join her husband, who has a government position there during a period of increasing strife between the British rulers and the local population. Catherine arrives in Ceylon, having buried one of her twin boys in England, and part of her fascination with the burgeoning art of photography is tied to her desire to hold onto him. She is fascinated by the possibilities photography offers: "Aspects that were daily lost to careless memory might still be found..." and begins a correspondence with Sir John Holland, a scientist on the same exploratory journey, which upsets her husband and causes disdain and shunning within the colonial community. When a young local boy, Eligius Shourie, whose father was killed by British soldiers in Catherine's presence, is taken in as a servant, he soon shares Catherine's passion for photography. But he is torn between his growing loyalty to Catherine and the demands made on him by the villagers who want him to join them in sabotaging the British. The book is beautifully written, especially the scenes where Eligius works with Catherine in her experiments, while scenes of escalating political unrest and the impossibility of either side finding a reasonable solution to their differences are less effective, even if historically accurate. The supporting characters, in contrast to Catherine and Eligius, lack dimension. . If Rocklin plays to his strengths, he will be a writer to watch. (Oct.)

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