Published by Doubleday
Publication date: July 9th 2013
The Light in the Ruins, Chris Bohjalian’s latest novel, is set at the Villa Chimera in Tuscany in 1943, a pastoral estate where the war is largely unseen. The Rosatis are a titled Italian family and while they have one son preparing for the Allied invasion in Sicily and another who works at a museum trying to control the flow of Italian art out of the country, their lives remain mostly untouched. Food is plentiful and while the Germans are acquisitive and oafish, they are still allies and so, cause few problems. At worst they force their attention on the family, asking for tours of the groves and the ruins of a small Etruscan burial ground. The house, wine, artwork, and land are much admired and the Villa Chimera becomes a social destination. The lines are further blurred as the Nazi demands increase and the family hosts parties for contingents of German leaders, calling into question their loyalties. As the Allies invade and the Germans use the Italian landscape as their final stand, the family’s choices put them in a precarious position among their countryman. Suddenly, they find they have no protection from either side and their choices will come back to haunt them a decade later.
In a departure from his usual character-driven narratives, Bohjalian creates a full-fledged murder mystery in The Light in the Ruins, complete with a vengeful serial killer who carries out the murders in a manner most gruesome. It is ten years after the end of the war and the target is what is left of the Rosatis family: mother, daughter, son, son’s wife and children, and a daughter-in-law. Whose actions could have angered another to the point of wanting the entire family eradicated? Is it Cristina, who fell in love with a Nazi officer? Or Vittore, who ‘allowed’ Nazis to plunder Italian art from the museums in Florence? Or is the killing retribution by someone from the partisan movement who believes the family were collaborators? By splitting the novel between the end days of the war and a decade later, Bohjalian captures the feel of a precarious and dangerous world. As only ten years have passed the emotions created are still present in many of the characters, including the damaged and lovely police detective, Serafina, who was a partisan fighter and was present at the final battle at Villa Chimera.
The Light in the Ruins contains extensively researched details of Tuscany during WWII and touches of the nuanced human emotions that Bohjalian has used to great effect in his other novels. However, as a mystery it demands skill of a different sort, which is delivered with tight pacing and a killer whose identity stays hidden until the final chapters. The human experience, in all its breathtaking complexity and complexity ala Bohjalian, is missing. There were no characters that broke my heart, the ones who moved me to the point of rereading pages just so I wouldn’t have to stop. Instead, the plot is the focus, a laser of light on a dark world where every action has a consequence, whether immediate or ten years later. In this way, with his inimitable style, Bohjalian gets to the heart of the matter.