Let There Be Light: The TFT Review of The Luminist by David Rocklin

coverOver 185 years since Nicéphore Niépce took the world’s first photograph—a photogravure of Pope Pius VII in 1822—the process of photography continues to develop in unanticipated ways. From heliography and silver chloride to Adobe Lightroom and digital single-lens reflex cameras, pioneers would scarcely recognize the 19th-century industry they helped to define. One these innovators, Julia Margaret Cameron, spent her life developing techniques for taking soft-focus portraits, and her surviving prints include an image of her niece, Julia Prinsep Jackson, mother of Virginia Woolf. But that isn’t Julia Margaret Cameron’s only connection to literature: the portrait she took of Woolf’s mother now graces the cover of a novel Cameron’s own life inspired: David Rocklin’s The Luminist.

The novel opens in 1836 in South Africa, where Catherine Colebrook is preparing to depart for Ceylon, a British colony off the coast of India (present-day Sri Lanka). Colebrook, an flexible stand-in for Cameron, is fascinated by the process of capturing images on tin or copper; she has heard about the technique from Sir John Holland, a visiting lecturer. At the same time she begins to develop her interest in Sir John’s photographic equipment, Catherine’s husband, Charles, an old diplomat, struggles with tensions between the English and the indigenous population of Ceylon, who crave sovereignty and, above all, dignity. After an altercation leaves a boy, Eligius, without his father, Catherine and Charles bring on the boy as a servant.

During each event in his novel, Rocklin’s wide-angle lens allows him to capture the prejudices of Victorian England and the political complexities of Ceylon, but his large aperture means that the drama plays out in tight focus, on an intimate, human scale. Catherine and Eligius in particular sketch out the anxieties of the world they live in. It’s a rewarding technique. By tethering the abstract problems of colonial occupation to specific people, Rocklin explores the hardships both sides face—both the occupiers and the occupied. What emerges is a remarkably human look at problems that are too often obscured by the language of academia: postcolonial ideology, colonial critique, and subaltern voices (people outside the hegemonic power structure).

More striking than Rocklin’s theories, though, are his sentences. His language is precise. He knows each term relating to life in Ceylon, and he fits those words into situations as the story develops. He vividly renders customs, clothing, food, and geography. At times, the unfamiliar words—coupled with the lyrical force of Rocklin’s prose—can cause the action to grow cloudy. Usually, though, that isn’t a problem. The effect is a novel in in portraits, where the action accommodates beautiful imagery. Rocklin writes especially well about light and its physical properties. His flexible syntax and far-ranging vocabulary add texture and depth to a compelling era, and his unique style allows The Luminist to rise above a host of other novels concerned with colonial injustice. His precision also benefits him when he writes about photography:

Over the course of February and March, Catherine and Sir John experimented with various chemical combinations. They used guncotton to bathe the plates in silver salt. They lacquered skins of collodion onto them and potassium mixed with oil of lavender to lend flexibility. They conversed in drams and durations. Light and shadow became their accomplices. … Sir John taught her and Eligius how to grind and polish glass for lenses. They reconfigured the camera’s plate holder with a spring-loaded trap of imported rosewood. For the collodion and silver salt, Eligius constructed vertical baths so the plates might be coated evenly. On his own he experimented with mirrors and angles. By spring he’d created his own topography of the light’s possibilities in Holland House. (p. 219).

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. Rocklin grew up in Chicago and attended Indiana University; he attended law school and lives in California, far from the mud-caked, rain-soaked world of Ceylon. To so deeply inhabit the hardships of people oppressed by the British empire is a risk, but in this case it’s a risk that pays off handsomely. This tradition, the novel as an act of empathetic imagination, sometimes gets overlooked in creative writing classrooms, where conventional wisdom often encourages students to “write what they know.” By eschewing this advice, though, and striking out into the uncertain world of 19th century colonialism, 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.

Ben Pfeiffer is the co-editor of Beecher’s Magazine. He teaches writing at the University of Kansas, where he is an MFA candidate in fiction.  ...read more

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