Chris Bohjalian is known for crafting stories that are historically accurate and emotionally touching. He also is known for exploring subjects which are often ignored in literature. The Light in the Ruins is the perfect example and is a compelling story that masterfully blends the tragedy of World War II Italy with a savage murder spree over a decade later. With moving characters, gripping voice, and unexpected twists, The Light in the Ruins is another Bohjalian treasure.
The novel alternates between the war years of 1943 & 1944, and the somewhat recovered Italy of 1955. Set in the Tuscan countryside, The Light in the Ruins focuses on the Rosati family: a marchese, his wife, and their three grown children, and the property which they call home (an expanse of land that has vineyards, stables, and an ancient burial site that harbors Etruscan artifacts). Cristina, the youngest, is eighteen at this time and while fascinated by the airplanes that pass over her countryside villa, has been fairly sheltered from the reality of the situation partly because of her privileged upbringing, and partly because of the family villa’s location from town. Her brother, Marco, has been called off as manual labor for the Germans in Sicily (despite his engineering background), and her other brother Vittore, an art historian, has been conscripted by the Germans in Florence, despite his outward contempt for them.
Flashing forward eleven years, a vicious killer has begun to take the lives of the remaining Rosati family members, brutally murdering them and taking out their hearts. Although we know little about the killer, their chilling narrative accounts from 1955 are enough to haunt readers who desperately want to get to the bottom of the mystery and spare the remaining members of a family that has seen more than its fair share of tragedy and heartbreak.
As the story unfolds in 1943, Cristina begins to fall in love with Lieutenant Friedrich Strekker, a one-legged war veteran who, in stark contrast to his German counterparts, is a kind and caring soul. Her family, especially Vittore, and Marco’s wife, Francesca, are disapproving because they understand what the Germans have done to Italy and its people, yet Cristina sees the good in Friedrich, and tries to make sense of the confusion surrounding their blossoming relationship. In the midst of the chaos and turmoil that surrounds the family’s villa, they must make important decisions about who to save and who to spare; what to do to protect themselves and what they must do to protect their country. Bohjalian does a wonderful job showing the dilemmas that arise during wartime and the challenges that everyone must face as a result.
Blending the murder mystery and the Rosati’s trials during war, The Light in the Ruins is a complex and powerful story. The emotional scars of the war are oftentimes more damaging than the physical wounds, as shown by Serafina, the young female detective assigned to the case who finds that her past intersects with the Rosati’s in a way that could not have been predicted.
This is a fabulous read that beautifully intertwines elements of historical fiction, romance, and suspense. In true Bohjalian style, the story and characters will stay with you long after you have completed the novel.