Chris Bohjalian’s “The Light in the Ruins”


cover-light[1]Chris Bohjalian’s latest novel The Light in the Ruins is set in Italy, the time periods alternating between 1943/44 and 1955.

During WWII, when Mussolini’s Italy is an ally of Hitler’s Germany, not all Italians are fascists, but they all have to choose sides, and whether they should fight or just quietly wait out the war.

Survival is a precarious thing: If you help the Germans, you will be punished by the partisans; if you help the partisans, you’ll pay dearly from the hands of the Germans. So it is a no win-win situation.  Which is exactly what the main characters, the Rosatis, experience.

The Rosati family, the aristocrats living in a villa near Florence, welcome the Nazi officers who express an interest in the historical and artistic value of their estate. The Nazis collect art from all the occupied territories in order to keep it “safe.” The Rosatis know better than to believe them, but they are caught between a rock and a hard place. The father cooperates with the Germans in order to secure his family’s well-being. Two sons collaborate with them because they are conscripted. An eighteen-year-old daughter, Cristina, falls in love with a German officer, frequenting the villa.

However, despite their amicable relationship with the allies, the Rosatis fail to avoid misfortune. The home that used to be their sanctuary eventually becomes their prison. Terrible acts of violence befall them during the war.

A decade later, the war echoes, and it echoes horribly. Someone is after the family, killing one, then another, cutting out their hearts, threatening to finish them all off. In fact, the book starts with the killer’s chilling account of the first murder, and throughout the narration we feel scared for the lives of other members of the family.

Serafina Bettini is a police detective investigating the serial murders. She too is scarred by the war, both physically and emotionally, and she cannot explain why she feels personally connected to the Rosati family. That is, until she regains her memory of her harrowing ordeal back in 1944.

The events taking place in 1955 are just as attention-grabbing as the events of 1943.

Great suspense. I couldn’t guess who the killer was until the last revealing chapter.

Chris Bohjalian is a very good writer. This is his second novel that I’ve read and I’m going to read all of his books.

4 thoughts on “Chris Bohjalian’s “The Light in the Ruins”

  1. Very interesting review, Nadya. Definitely going to buy this book. Chris Bohjalian is a master of exploring ambiguity in human relationships- read Midwives and also Skeletons at the Feast. Agreed with Los Angeles Times commentary about his books, “Judging who is right and wrong is difficult- and one senses that’s just the way Bohjalian wants it.”

  2. Beth, thanks for your feedback. Yes, I love Bohjalian’s sense of ambiguity in his novels too: it’s not all black and white, there are gray areas, because that’s how it is in life, and how it’s supposed to be portrayed in literature. I did read his Skeletons at the Feast, just recently, and I loved it. I’m going to post my opinion of it shortly. And, of course, I’ll read Midwives too.

  3. Who the killer was turned out to be a total surprise for me. What do you think is the significance of Serafina’s “habit”- the last chapter seemed to suggest that she was doing it with her lover, or at least with his knowledge. The last couple of chapters were the most horrifying for me; before then, the war was talked about as this awful abstraction, but the last few chapters made it personal.

    • Beth, at first I thought of Serafina’s “habit” to crush a smoldering cigarette into her skin as somewhat unrealistic, but then I sort of understood it. I think she is so scarred psychologically (not to mention physically) that she can’t help but going back to that time when she was badly burned and almost died. She completely forgot what exactly happened that day and by doing this she hopes to regain her memory.
      I felt the same about the last chapters: yes, they are horrifying.

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