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.