Los Angeles Review, Issue 12 (Dec. 2012).
Fiction by David Rocklin
Writers are supposed to avoid dating themselves, but the heart of The Luminist, David Rocklin’s debut novel, depends on it. What the contemporary reader takes for granted is part science and part magic for the residents of Rocklin’s 19th-Century Ceylon, where Catherine Colebrook becomes obsessed with the evolving art of photography. The British wife of an ailing barrister, mother to two living children and a third lost in childbirth, Catherine is driven in part by the impulse to freeze moments in time. She gains an unlikely ally in Eligius, a servant who has lost his father in a massacre by British soldiers. An ambivalent intermediary between native Ceylon and colonial authority, Eligius helps Catherine find a way to arrest images on paper that eludes earlier experiments. Rocklin’s descriptions of the process are vivid, even suspenseful, without sacrificing technical detail; he is most successful when representing the subtleties of shifting perspectives, when characters have exceeded the limits of what they know, but have yet to account for evidence of what they don’t: “Holding the captured paper to the light, [Eligius] saw vague, corporeal shapes that resembled eyes. A nose. A mouth. They could scarcely be seen, but he could tell they were not drawn, not sketched.” The motif of photography grounds a broad, yet nuanced portrait of colonial relations. Cath- erine is a devoted wife and mother who nevertheless benefits from a system driven by oppression. Eligius suffers this system, but does not hesitate to manipulate it for personal gain. Rocklin’s narration illuminates without starkness; light is never far from shadow.
The Luminist, which is loosely based on the life of British photographer Julia Margaret Cameron, is a fascinating story beautifully told. - "Rocklin describes the undeveloped country, the harshness of native life, and the tragic consequences of rebellion in sentences which, while they do nothing to dispel the ugliness, cast events in a classic mold. The characters, especially but not only Catherine and Eligius, are unique and yet recognizable from the context. They will be hard to forget. The Luminist is for attentive, questioning readers, who will find the effort rewarding. Highly recommended."
Let There Be Light: The TFT Review of The Luminist by David Rocklin - "In the age of the thinly-veiled autobiographical novel, where many works of fiction might as well be exaggerated memoirs, The Luminist celebrates another tradition: The ability of an author to put himself inside the head of other people, to explore a culture vastly unlike his own."
What She Read: "First, let me say that this novel will be difficult to forget. - Despite having read four books since, this one - dark and disturbing though it certainly is - burns bright in memory, eclipsing all the others."
Rocklin manages to do what the critic David Kirby - (in an essay called “Ghosts and Gadabouts”) said the American novel does best: refract the diffuse light of everyday existence into the concentrated radiance of art." The Faster Times
Unabridged Chick - "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." Website
Hailed by Jacqueline Mitchard as a novel that "recalls Out of Africa", The Luminist uses its mix of dark and light to burn an image into our minds that is sure to remain." The Write Place
Kirkus Starred Review - 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.
The Luminist highlights a moment in history when the world is transforming and the very fabric of society is being stretched in unforseen ways.
A literary feast of words and exquisite turns of phrase, The Luminist brings colonial 19th century Ceylon to life through the eyes of a Tamil boy named Eligius Shourie, a free-thinking servant who forms a bond with his employer, the ambitious British photographer Catherine Colebrook. Set against a tropical backdrop of simmering unrest, this elegantly constructed historical novel cast a quiet spell on me that gathered momentum right through to shocking final scenes of astonishing emotional power. This fascinating story made me want to run to the library and learn everything about the 19th century British photographer, Julia Margaret Cameron – on whom the character of Catherine Colebrook is loosely based – and the colorful history of Ceylon, which is now known as Sri Lanka. —Anjali Banerjee, author of Haunting Jasmine
The Luminist is a warm dazzle of a first novel – a profoundly human story of shadow and light fixed in the searing simplicity of David Rocklin’s diamond-bright prose. —Susan Taylor Chehak author of Apocalypse Tonight
Not since Tinkers have I read a book which, in its sheer beauty and mystery, has carried me off the way The Luminist has. Every sentence is a small miracle; every character glows with a complex elegance, as if seen by candlelight. David Rocklin's lush rendering of raw, unstable, colonial Ceylon will be etched in my memory for a long, long time. Superb. —Mylène Dressler, author of The Deadwood Beetle
In this extraordinary debut, David Rocklin takes us to the heart of photography's unlikely origins through language that shimmers like the art of light itself. As creative obsession fuses with political crisis in Colonial Ceylon, the result is one unforgettable story. The Luminist is a gorgeous evocation of era, place, and human passion.
—Aimee Liu, author of Flash House and Cloud Mountain
This book is one of those few in which an author’s specific sensibilities nourish the text, as Abraham Verghese’s multi-geographic heritage and his physician’s life inform Cutting For Stone and Andrea Barrett’s fiction, from Ship Fever to Servants of the Map, owes its density and savor to the botanic and historiographic facts that beguile her. David Rocklin’s The Luminist, is a weave of legend and history, science and art, politics and domesticity that are symphonic themes in the main title, the story of an enduring and forbidden friendship. —From the Introduction by Jacquelyn Mitchard, author of No Time to Wave Goodbye and The Deep End of the Ocean
Ceylon of the 19th century is more than the setting for David Rocklin’s richly imagined and deeply moving novel. It is the central character, a world no less alienated and scarred than the people who inhabit it. That Rocklin chooses to capture the rawness of those lives through the nascent lens of photography is even more impressive, lending the novel a lyricism that comes as both a shock and a comfort. —Jonathan Rabb, author of Shadow and Light and The Second Son
The book is beautifully written, especially the scenes where Eligius works with Catherine in her experiments, ...If Rocklin plays to his strengths, he will be a writer to watch." Publishers Weekly
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