The Light in the Ruins

  • Chris Bohjalian
  • Doubleday
  • 320 pp.
  • Reviewed by Patricia Smith
  • September 30, 2013

A historical novel with a murderous bite.

The novel begins: “A woman is sitting before an art nouveau vanity, brushing her hair in the mirror. It is, at least according to the police report, somewhere between midnight and three in the morning, on the first Tuesday of June 1955.”

It’s delicious when such a simple, straightforward declaration can spark a chill and make you want to stop and keep reading all at once. If you manage to quell your unease, you will learn that the nightgown is prim, not provocative, and that it will soon be sliced open. Dare you ask why?

“I didn’t violate her. It was so I could cut out her heart.”

This eerily detached narrative begins Chris Bohjalian’s tense and lyrical historical novel, The Light in the Ruins, a tale so deftly conceived it lifted me out of the chaos of my syllabi-constructing, textbook-choosing, beginning-of-semester chaos and transported me into the starkly efficient mind of an Eisenhower-era killer, then to hills of Tuscany during the heat of World War II — both places far from the imaginings of this harried African-American English professor.

There’s a problem inherent in what we’ve unimaginatively dubbed “historical” novels. If the reader, selfishly hoarding free time and faced with thousands of literary choices, is not connected to or initially interested in the history, the story at the heart of that history is not given a chance. However, it’s almost impossible not to be enthralled by this suspenseful saga, a heady mix of compromised morality, betrayal, murderous revenge and ill-advised romantic entanglement.

Quietly beautiful 18-year-old Cristina Rosati enjoys an idyllic existence of noble lineage in 1943 at Villa Chimera, the sprawling family manor in the mythical town of Monte Volta, just south of Florence. She lives there with her parents the marchese and marchesa, her sister-in-law Francesca (who, we learn in the opening chapter, is the woman sitting at the vanity in the unrevealing nightgown, brushing her hair) and Francesca’s precocious children, Massimo and Alessia. Cristina’s archeologist brother Vittore is, at least for the moment, safe in Florence. Her other brother, Francesca’s husband Marco, is an engineer helping to prepare the beaches for the rumored Allied invasion of Sicily, a place becoming more treacherous by the day.

The Italians and Germans are quickly losing ground in the war, and the Nazis are starkly focused on purloining Italian artifacts, but Villa Chimera seems to exist in rarefied air. That is, until two soldiers – an Italian and a German – arrive and convince the Rosatis to let them examine an ancient Etruscan burial site on the property, which they believe may conceal valuable artistic treasures.

The German lieutenant tenderly but persistently pursues Cristina, who realizes just how much she has craved an emotional connection beyond the confines of Villa Chimera. Soon, however, the Nazis descend upon the property in hordes, stomping the well-manicured grounds, shattering the apparent tranquility, making demands. While the marchese attempts to answer the invasion with civility, the surrounding community brands the Rosatis as traitors. It doesn’t help that Cristina has fallen stubbornly in love with Friedrich, the German soldier — a situation that mystifies her family and further alienates the town’s inhabitants.

In alternate chapters, beginning with that terrifying opening, it becomes apparent someone is methodically targeting the Rosatis, picking them off one by one more than a decade after the glory days of Villa Chimera. The family, weakened from within and already beset by a series of tragedies, can’t imagine who could have held such a soul-deep grudge against them for so long. The arrow of guilt veers wildly, and each possibility is equally intriguing. Bohjalian has so competently crafted the world of Monte Volta, building its reality up to surround the reader, it’s akin to a backhand slap each time the murderer’s icy, italicized voice interrupts the historical narrative.

The killer is pursued by Serafina Bettini, a tough, but psychologically and physically scarred police investigator in Florence, a woman with her own ghostly ties to the past. The chapters chronicling her pinpoint scrutiny of the murders read like the most addictive police procedurals. As past and present set course for collision, it becomes apparent that Bohjalian has done a masterful job balancing two complex narratives, and maintaining a level of suspense that allows them to exist in parallel until the electrifying and unexpected conclusion. In the end, it’s an exceptionally constructed whodunit laid against a backdrop that is both elegant and volatile.

Along the way, Bohjalian does an enviable job tackling the succession of moral complexities that arise in wartime, and of nurturing a flame that somehow survives the maelstrom. At the heart of this story is romantic love, familial love and the headstrong hunger to survive it all.

Patricia Smith’s six books of poetry include Blood Dazzler, a finalist for the National Book Award, and her latest, Shoulda Been Jimi Savannah. Her work has appeared in Poetry, The Paris Review, Tin House and in Best American Poetry, Best American Essays and Best American Mystery Stories. She is a professor at the College of Staten Island and an instructor in the MFA program at Sierra Nevada College.


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