|See inside The Luminist at amazon.com.|
This literary fiction set in colonial Ceylon in the mid-1800's surprised me. David Rocklin's story of a headstrong woman obsessed with reanimating her dead baby at times carries the macabre weight of a Frankenstein tale. Only here, the vehicle for raising the dead isn't an electrical contraption to literally jolt flesh into life, but rather a camera set to capture life itself upon a page.
The cover image sets - or rather amplifies - the dark and near-spectral atmosphere crafted by first-time novelist David Rocklin, while providing a vividly haunting representation of our title character Catherine. Oddly though, it's beleaguered young Ceylonese servant Eligius, symbol of native Ceylonese in this time period, who burns brightest in memory because his life is - in the end - much more challenging. While Catherine, despite some economic constraints, chooses her own life path even when it conflicts with her husband's and brings shame upon her own family, Eligius seems forced to adapt, again and again, to the whims of fate and to those more physically and economically powerful than he.
With English protagonist Catherine and her foil Eligius, we explore the very beginnings of photography itself, when stabilizing an image in two dimensions was by no means an easy or sure thing, and when the process itself could kill with caustic toxicity. What to us now is often a quotidian act - we whip out a cell phone, snap a pic, and send it through the interwebs or from tower to tower across the world - was then a rare and delicate miracle, requiring hours of work and just the right quantities of light.
Such an interesting juxtaposition our writer Rocklin has set up: The events of the times in Ceylon could hardly have been darker, with colonial England pillaging the country's resources, leaving the natives destitute and dying, yet the tropical setting, Catherine's obsession, and Eligius's expert pursuit of light ring an ironic counterpoint at every turn.
For me, fascinating as Rocklin's historical details may be, the overwhelmingly depressing and seemingly intractable circumstances of all the characters, plus our protagonist Catherine's consistent state of manic despair-tinged-with-obsession, proved daunting. This was a difficult book to keep picking up, despite the often luminous and certainly unique prose style and the interesting setting, because events inexorably kept devolving, yet somehow the potentially tragic plot line just didn't gain momentum. I suspect that this is because, ultimately, Catherine's not built to be a sympathetic character nor has she the social status necessary for a tragic hero, and Eligius's character suffers the fate of having to embody both a fully fledged human being upon the page and all of the oppressed Ceylonese people. It's just too heavy a load for one character to bear gracefully, empathetic though he is.
Who would find The Luminist illuminating? Anyone interested in a little-known pioneer of photography - Julia Margaret Cameron, whose face graces the cover and on whose life the novel is very loosely based - but especially anyone ready to reexamine the psychological repercussions of colonialism on both the colonizers and the colonized, and anyone who does not mind a tale that begins with the death of an infant and spirals downward slowly into darkness.
My Action: I'll be researching more about the history of Ceylon in this period and beyond, as well as the real life of Julia Margaret Cameron. It is indeed a fascinating subject!
p.s. My thanks to Tracee at Pump Up Your Book, who kindly offered me a perusal copy in exchange for my candid review.