Have I mentioned lately how much I love the Outlander Book Club? Without the OBC’s Book of the Month discussions, I might have procrastinated about reading this book for a while longer… but instead, I read The Light in the Ruins by Chris Bohjalian for our February BOTM pick, and loved it!
The Light in the Ruins is historical fiction set in Italy, with two alternating timelines: 1943-1944, when we meet the Rosati family and learn of their experiences during World War II, and 1955, when the surviving members of the family are being hunted down and brutally murdered by a serial killer with a vendetta.
The Rosatis own a beautiful, luxurious estate, Villa Chimera, in the Tuscan hills, where they live in upper class splendor, enjoying their vineyards, horses, swimming pool, and sweeping vistas. They are linked to museums in both the local town nearby and in Florence by the discovery of Etruscan tombs on their property. The tombs attract the attention of the Nazi officials whose job it is to steal rare and valuable Italian artwork for the benefit of the Reich (or, as they put it, to “protect” the artwork from the war by sending it all back to Berlin for safekeeping).
One Rosati son, Vittore, is a museum curator, and the Germans he works with begin to visit the villa more regularly, at first just to view the tombs, but then as a place to take visitors and enjoy some pampering. The Rosatis are viewed with suspicion and more by the neighboring villagers and gain a reputation as collaborators. Were they forced and intimidated into entertaining the Nazis, or are they enjoying the extra rations and other benefits of staying on the Nazi officers’ good sides?
Meanwhile, youngest daughter Cristina enters into an ill-advised love affair with a young German officer, and daughter-in-law Francesca, known for her sharp tongue and abrasive ways, waits anxiously with her two small children for news of her husband Marco, fighting on the front lines against the Allied invasion.
Cut to 1955, and the Rosatis are being gruesomely murdered, one by one. I won’t go into detail about which family members have survived the war and which are the murder victims. You’ll find all this out in short order if you read the book, and it’s all quite devastating. The investigating police detective is a woman named Serafina, who fought as a partisan during the war and whose wartime experiences and awful injuries intersect with the fate of so many members of the Rosati family.
Meanwhile, in between the 1943 and 1955 chapters, we get snippets of first-person narration told by the killer in a chilling, detached voice, explaining just how he or she butchered his first victim and what he or she has in store for the rest.
The Light in the Ruins has a grim, inevitable feel to its escalating tragedy. The war story is the more compelling of the two storylines, and it becomes increasingly difficult to read as we progress through the books. From the 1955 chapters, we know fairly early on which family members died during the war, and we spend the rest of the book building up to the awful events resulting in their deaths. The writing is all the more powerful because of the dread in each scene; we know something very bad is coming, and can even guess some of it, but it’s still shocking and horrible to read when it arrives.
That said, The Light in the Ruins is an incredibly well-written and smartly paced book. The plot is constantly moving forward, despite the time shifts, and the clues and revelations pile up in a way that feels organic and well-ordered. Interestingly, I didn’t particularly like many of the characters, even the ones we theoretically should feel more sympathetic toward, but that in no way meant that I didn’t feel horror at their fate and their suffering.
Perhaps the only story thread that I didn’t particularly care for was the love story involving Cristina and the German officer, but it’s only one of many pieces of the whole. Otherwise, I found the connections and relationships among the many characters fascinating. If anything, I’d have liked to know a bit more about Serafina, and would be curious to know what her future holds.
The author does not shy away from describing the terrible events that occur in either timeline, and I suppose some readers will feel that the descriptions might be too graphic. I didn’t feel that way — I felt that it was important to know and understand exactly what happened in order to experience the terror of the characters and get a full sense of the tragedy. Still, for readers who are more squeamish or prefer not to see every last detail, this might be good to keep in mind.
As I was reading The Light in the Ruins, I was often reminded of the wonderful book A Thread of Grace by Mary Doria Russell — and was delighted to see Chris Bohjalian’s praise of that book in his acknowledgements. For more reading on Italy during WWII, I highly recommend A Thread of Grace.
Summing it all up: Is there anything Chris Bohjalian can’t write? I’ve now read, written by him, a legal/medial drama (Midwives), a post -disaster first-person story with a teen girl narrator (Close Your Eyes, Hold Hands), one of the spookiest ghost stories I’ve ever read (The Night Strangers), and with The Light in the Ruins, outstanding historical fiction. Clearly, I need to read much more of his work and see what other worlds and genres are contained within his books!
Meanwhile, for an excellent but heart-wrenching slice of historical fiction, I absolutely recommend The Light in the Ruins.
Title: The Light in the Ruins
Author: Chris Bohjalian
Publication date: July 9, 2013
Length: 309 pages
Genre: Historical fiction
Source: Found at a book swap!