The Light in the Ruins
By Chris Bohjalian
New York: Doubleday (July 9, 2013)
309 pages, $25.95
Chris Bohjalian’s The Light in the Ruins is a taught, suspenseful page-turner. In somewhat of a departure from his previous works, Bohjalian’s new novel is darker, even flirting with the crime fiction genre. The novel is set at a beautiful estate in Tuscany that is dragged into the tragedy and destruction of World War II, along with the family that owns it, the Rosatis. From the first pages, however, Bohjalian makes clear we are in for something different here—this will not be a tragic war-time love story—as the novel starts with the grisly musings of a serial killer, describing the murder he is about to commit. Who is this madman and why is he doing this? Once the stage is set, the novel slowly unravels the mystery of who the murderer is and why he keeps killing. Bohjalian keeps the reader guessing throughout, making the book difficult to put down.
The novel is narrated from multiple perspectives: the nameless killer with murderous intent, the Rosatis struggling to deal with the violence and upheaval of World War II, and a tough female detective in the Florence police department who is investigating the murder that opens the novel. Light in the Ruins alternates between 1955 Florence during the murder investigation and 1943-45 at Villa Chimera, the Rosati family estate in Tuscany. The connections between what happened during the war at Villa Chimera and the horrible murders of 1955 are what propel the mystery to an eventual—and surprising—resolution.
The Rosatis are a noble Tuscan family who, in 1943, are trying to keep their family and beautiful way of life intact despite the war that is raging around them. At the time, the Nazi army is fully ensconced in Italy, and the Italian people are forced into the role of wary allies and hosts. Villa Chimera becomes an attractive target for the Nazis, who are enamored with Italian art and history. Antonio Rosati, the patriarch of the family, when faced with the inescapable presence of the Nazi army chooses the path of least resistance and welcomes the local Nazi contingent from Florence into his home. These German officials are interested in the ancient Etruscan ruins on the property and visit repeatedly to inspect them and enjoy the Rosati’s hospitality. Antonio’s son Vittore is a soldier but spends his time off the battlefield as a representative of the Italian military at the Uffizi museum in Florence, assisting—and in some instances covertly preventing—the Nazi theft of Italian masterpieces. Vittore’s brother, Marco, is a soldier bracing for an Allied invasion in Sicily. His wife Francesca and two children live at the Villa Chimera with his parents and sister.
Antonio’s youngest daughter, Cristina, is 18 years old. She is both pampered and innocent, stuck at the Villa because of the war. Cristina occupies her time playing with her niece and nephew (Marco’s children) and riding her beloved horse Arabella. Her ill-fated romance with a Nazi soldier who works with her brother becomes the focus of the story set during the war. As the situation of the Germans in Italy deteriorates, Cristina’s romance complicates her family’s fate.
The more weathered women of Villa Chimera—the marchesa, the haughty Beatrice and her sharp-tongued sister-in-law Francesca—counter Cristina’s sweetness. It is Francesca who is the victim of the mysterious serious killer. Shortly after the novel begins she is found, in 1955, murdered in her apartment with her heart cut out of her body. While once a close-knit family, 10 years later the Rosatis have become fractured as a result of the damage done to them during the war.
The detective assigned to the case, Serafina Bettini, is the central and most compelling character in the novel. She fought as a partisan during the war and was severely burned, leaving her scarred both physically and emotionally. Serafina is a trailblazer; there are no other women in the Florence police department, much less in the murder squad. After Francesca is murdered, another murder soon reveals that the former was not random and that someone is targeting the Rosati family. Serafina is convinced that uncovering the family’s wartime past will lead to the killer. By looking backwards, however, Serafina is forced to confront her own suppressed memories of the war and why the family’s Tuscan estate, Villa Chimera, is so familiar to her.
In Serafina, Bohjalian has perhaps created his most complex and compelling lead character. Bohjalian does not shy away from Serafina’s darkness; the scars from the war fuel her determination rather than make her tragic. The novel is expertly paced, and as Serafina desperately tries to solve the murder and save the surviving members of the Rosati family, Bohjalian also reveals the dark secrets from the war that haunt both Serafina and the Rosatis. By tying the mystery of the Rosatis’ killer to Serafina’s past, Bohjalian effortlessly turns a work of historical fiction into a breathless whodunit. The Light in the Ruins is arguably Bohjalian’s most accomplished work to date.
Wendy Plotkin is a litigation attorney at a Boston area biotechnology company. Her book review and cooking blog can be found at www.bookcooker.blogspot.com. She also writes book reviews for the Armenian Weekly.