The Light in the Ruins by Chris Bohjalian
Florence in 1943 is radiating calm before a storm, entirely at the disposal of its German allies whose soldiers spill across the Tuscan hillside with abandon, commandeering art and artifacts as they go. Gradually receiving the brunt of the Nazis' focus are the Rosatis, a family of Italian nobility, and their idyllic estate, Villa Chimera. Here lives eighteen year-old Cristina Rosati, who exists in an otherwise blissful ignorance away from the tragedies of the war until she embarks on a love affair with a young Nazi officer that will ultimately lead her family on a treacherous downward spiral. Branded as traitors for hosting the Nazis, the Rosati family is left to witness their own fall from grace - if they manage to survive the war. Ten years later, police detective Serafina Bettini is investigating the gruesome serial murders of the remaining members of the Rosati family. She’s desperate to solve the mystery before the killer reaches the youngest of the Rosatis: Cristina. As Serafina's investigation leads her further into the scandal of Villa Chimera and its wartime downfall, she realizes that she herself may have ties to the victims, and maybe even to the killer.
Chris Bohjalian's strengths as a writer have consistently captured my attention as I've journeyed through three of his books this year. His latest novel, The Light in the Ruins, carries all the hallmarks I've come to know of Bohjalian's artistry with fiction. As with The Sandcastle Girls, the richly imagined and beautifully researched history brings the era of the story to life in a way that takes historical fiction to an exciting new level. The characters, all portrayed with an intensity and depth that I've come to expect from the author, captured me from the beginning. Despite being a story full of people, one character never blurs with another; they each manage to take on a larger-than-life presence throughout the novel. Cristina's determined spirit in her youth and Serafina's ability to survive a horrific personal tragedy were inspiring; even the disturbing Nazi antagonist Colonel Decher and the villainous murderer at the heart of the story’s mystery compelled my attention at every scene. The Light in the Ruins is also very dedicated to its genre as a murder mystery; an entirely gruesome whodunit that never once feels contrived. The uniqueness that sets it apart, I think, is rooted in the experienced literary talent of the author, and his ability to truly outwit his audience. The novel's narrative alternates from Cristina's love affair with a Nazi in 1944 to the Rosati murders and Serafina's investigation in 1955, with brief and successfully unsettling first-person interruptions from the faceless serial killer posed between chapters. Through the dual story lines Bohjalian finds a way of simultaneously telling his story from front to back and back to front, a device used similarly in The Sandcastle Girls and which I greatly enjoyed. I found myself on several occasions unseating myself as a reader in order to view the story from the perspective of a writer, to examine and appreciate the deftness and intricacy of its construction, something I've had a tendency to do with all of Bohjalian’s work. And yet I’m never distracted from the story. Everything seems to happen all at once, and so far it’s been vastly enjoyable every time.
At the core of the novel, The Light in the Ruins is powerful on many levels. Stepping out of the territory of the plot – the murder mystery – it broadens to touch on the subject of morality and love in, around, and well outside of the war’s reach. At times a gentle homage to Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet, it captures the passion of youth; but it also examines the beauty of love’s strength in all its manifestation: between husbands and wives, parents and children, friends, partners, and beyond. I saw only the tense literary thriller coming; the emotional complexity left me breathless and a great deal less dry-eyed than I usually am at the final pages of a novel. Graceful and evocative, The Light in the Ruins delivers a romance, murder mystery, and a profound narrative on human nature in one beautifully crafted story.