The Luminist

Written by David Rocklin
Review by Jeanne Greene

When Catherine Colebrook goes to Ceylon to join her husband, a functionary with the East India Company, she’s already obsessed with finding a way to make lasting photographic images. In 1836, the nascent science is incomprehensible to colonial society. Catherine ignores her peers and, when her experiments with glass, light, and dangerous chemicals consume her hours, she neglects her family.

Eligius, a brilliant young Indian servant, becomes Catherine’s disciple and shares her obsession. When his kinsmen rebel against the Company’s tyranny, Eligius, loyal to his mentor; refuses to take part. The violence escalates. Eligius, who is considered an enemy by both sides, finds safety with neither.

Like Catherine, the young servant is caught in a struggle with his own heritage. The tragic story of the faithful servant is repeated throughout colonial history, but Eligius, who is not a slave, never comes to regret what he has learned.

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.