Chris Bohjalian’s Light in the Ruins mixes a police procedural mystery with the horrors of war and a tale of revenge. The gore of murdered corpses with hearts carved out of bodies sharply contrasts with the beauty of Florence and the surrounding Tuscan countryside.
The narrative alternates between the 1940s war as the Nazis gradually overwhelmed Italy and Mussolini’s Blackshirts, and a decade later in 1955 when a woman police detective investigates the brutal killing of the Rosati family. Serafina, the only woman on the Italian police force who carries a gun, links the two timeframes by her participation as a young Italian underground rebel during the war. The Rosati’s, wealthy landowners with a noble title and the target of the crazed killer, supported both the Nazis and the rebels during the war. Antonio, the Rosati patriarch notes:
“We make compromises. We look the other way. Then, when it’s over, we can’t look at ourselves in the mirror.”
Bohjalian cleverly inserts the voice of the killer at the beginning of chapters, teasing readers with the possibility of the identity. At one point, the red herring is obvious when the killer notes that no one had assumed he is a woman. No spoilers here, but, like all of Bojhalian’s stories, the solution is a let-down. Nevertheless, to his credit, he neatly ties up all the loose plot lines, and everyone is accounted for in the ending.
Despite the anticlimactic ending, I enjoyed the suspense along the way, and the references to Italian art, the Uffizi Gallery, and Etruscan ruins. The Rosati land includes an archeological discovery of an Etruscan tomb, where the Nazis are looking for a swastika among the ancient wall drawings. That symbol does appear in Etruscan art, and has an older, more positive meaning than is ascribed to it today because of Hitler’s adoption of those crossed lines.
The glimpses into the war’s effect on Italians who seemed more concerned about preserving their art and lifestyle than fighting is balanced by the underground “partisans.” Bohjalian noted his inspiration for the book came from a diary by Marchese Iris Origo, looking back on the war and the devastation to her lands – War in Val d’Orica – a memoir that might be worth finding.
The Light in the Ruins will keep you riveted, whether you like to solve mysteries, immerse yourself in historical drama, revel in the beauty of the Tuscan countryside – or all of the above.
More reviews of Bohjalian books: