The Light in the Ruins is a novel of mystery and murder set in postwar Italy. The novel opens with the brutal and gruesome murder of Francesca Rosati in her apartment house in Florence. Bohjalian tells the story through the use of three narratives at first loosely connected but becoming ever so gradually interwoven into the revealing climax.
The first narrative, set in italics is that of the murderer who the reader first how he killed Francesca. We then learn that he plans to kill every surviving member of the Rosati family and that he has waited years to accomplish this. With each murder, he plans to cut out the heart of his victim and do something significant with it, as a sort of hint to the motive. Clues to the murderers identity seem to lie in the past and also in his? knowledge of art as he references paintings throughout his narrative.
For example, the murderer decides that when he kills Beatrice he will place her heart atop a corner of the Florentine bridge precisely where Henry Holiday has placed Dante's hand in his painting, Beatrice and Dante.
The second narrative is set in 1943 and essentially tells the wartime story of the Rosati family. It is told from multiple viewpoints, all the characters involved in the Eighteen year old Cristina Rosati lives with her mother and father Beatrice and Antonio, the marchesa and marchese of the Villa Chimera which is set in the Tuscan countryside, southeast of Siena. The family estate, Villa Chimera, is set in Monte Volta among vineyards and olive gardens. Also living in the villa is Cristina's sister-in-law, Francesca who is married to Marco, as well as Francesca's two children, 7 year old Massimo and 5 year old Alessia. Cristina's other older brother, Vittore, is an archeologist who is based in Florence and who is assisting the Nazi's as they plunder art from local museums and towns. He works at the Uffizi Gallery, the famous art museum.
Cristina and her family are visited by an Italian, Major Lorenzetti and a German, Colonel Erhard Decher who wish to see the Etruscan necropolis on their property. The ruins were discovered in 1937 and after an archeological dig, the artifacts of value including urns and sarcophogi were sent to the museum in Arezzo. Lorenzetti and Decher return again, this time bringing with them Decher's adjutant, Frederich Strekker, a young soldier who lost his lower leg and foot in the Ukraine. Cristina and Frederich share a mutual attraction and become romantically involved against the advice of Frederich's superior and Cristina's sister-in-law.
Overtop of both of these narratives is the third, that of Serafina Bettini, set in the present, 1955, the year the murders are occurring. Serafina is the only woman in the homicide unit in Florence. Chief Inspector Paolo Ficino doesn't want to take Serafina to the Rosati crime scene but given her past he decides she can probably handle it. Serafina was a member of the partisans fighting against both the Nazis and the fascists in Italy. Her two brothers were murdered and with their deaths, having no other family, Serafina joined. In a battle between the retreating Nazi's and the partisans in Monte Volta, Serafina was badly injured by an incendiary grenade, her back, neck and arm burned. She remembers nothing of the time immediately afterwards, except that she was cared for a nearby villa, but she's certain that is was not the Villa Chimera.
As Serafina investigates Francesca's murder, and then Beatrice's murder, it becomes clear that someone is targeting the Rosati family. As she interviews Cristina and the neighbours in Francesca's apartment house, she becomes convinced that the key to the murders lies in the past, in something that happened during the latter part of the war. With her own memories of what happened to her on Monte Volta during the German retreat mostly lost, Seraphina begins to wonder what really happened at the Villa Chimera eleven years ago.
Bohjalian weaves each of the narratives to its inevitable conclusion; the 1943 narrative reveals what really happened in the closing days of the Italian campaign, as the Germans retreated through Italy, pillaging and murdering, sparing neither the Rosati family nor their beloved villa. The 1955 narrative reveals both the connection to the 1943 narrative and the identity of the murderer.
The author effectively captures the horror of war; how most people did what they had to in order to survive, how some fell into a forbidden love sometimes because they could see the good in others, and how not all who were enemies were bad people. Bohjalian masterfully demonstrates many times throughout the novel how an event can appear differently to different people depending upon their perspective. For example, the Rosati's didn't like the German's coming to their villa to view the Etruscan ruins, yet the villagers assumed they were German collaborators.
Although there are plenty of major characters in the novel, certain ones stand out. Fredrick Strekker is the kind German soldier who although having done his duty on the Eastern Front, doesn't really believe all the Nazi ideology he's been fed. In contrast to Strekker is Colonel Decher who is a brute of a man, both arrogant and impulsive who commits an act of mass murder and covers it up with cowardice. Cristina Rosati is the lonely young woman still trying to cope with the loss of a first (and eternal) love, years after the war. Seraphina, the hardened former partisan turned detective, has a vulnerable side that her gay roommate, Milton tenderly ministers to. Her physical scars reflect the depth of her emotional ones.
Well-written, suspenseful, fans of Chris Bohjalian will enjoy this historical mystery.
The Light In The Ruins by Chris Bohjalian
New York: Doubleday Publishers 2013