The Light in the Ruins – Book Review
The Light in the Ruins
by Chris Bohjalian
Published by: Doubleday
Publish Date: 2013
Genre(s): Fiction, Mystery, Historical Fiction, Italy, World War II
HB&W Rating: 3.75
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From the New York Times bestselling author of Midwives and The Sandcastle Girls comes a spellbinding novel of love, despair, and revenge—set in war-ravaged Tuscany.
1943: Tucked away in the idyllic hills south of Florence, the Rosatis, an Italian family of noble lineage, believe that the walls of their ancient villa will keep them safe from the war raging across Europe. Eighteen-year-old Cristina spends her days swimming in the pool, playing with her young niece and nephew, and wandering aimlessly amid the estate’s gardens and olive groves. But when two soldiers, a German and an Italian, arrive at the villa asking to see an ancient Etruscan burial site, the Rosatis’ bucolic tranquility is shattered. A young German lieutenant begins to court Cristina, the Nazis descend upon the estate demanding hospitality, and what was once their sanctuary becomes their prison.
1955: Serafina Bettini, an investigator with the Florence police department, has her own demons. A beautiful woman, Serafina carefully hides her scars along with her haunting memories of the war. But when she is assigned to a gruesome new case—a serial killer targeting the Rosatis, murdering the remnants of the family one-by-one in cold blood—Serafina finds herself digging into a past that involves both the victims and her own tragic history.
Set against an exquisitely rendered Italian countryside, The Light in the Ruins unveils a breathtaking story of moral paradox, human frailty, and the mysterious ways of the heart.
Synopsis source: Goodreads
We make compromises. We look the other way. Then, when it’s over, we can’t look at ourselves in the mirror.
So often, it is easy to want to paint things black and white, but the reality is that things are rarely that simple. In The Book Thief, we were given a look behind life in Germany during WWII, shown what it looked like to be a party member or a detractor, or worse someone the party deemed undesirable. In The Nightingale and many other that have been set in France, we see what occupation looks like and what people resort to in order to stay alive, as well as people who fight for what they believe in.
In this book, we are seeing almost a combination of the two. Most assuredly there were fascists that toed the party line and were true allies to the Germans. We also see people who disagreed but went along with it for various reasons, which can mostly be traced back to self-preservation, like the marchese and his family. And of course, there are the partisans that fought back against Fascism and the Nazis any way they could and as often as they could. But what makes this a beautiful book is that we also see how love and understanding can build bridges between vast divides if given a chance.
Told in two timelines, war years and 10 years after the war, we get to know the Rosati family, Italian aristocrats living in a villa that is home to an ancient Etruscan burial site that draws the interest of Col. Decher of the German military, residing in nearby Florence toward the end of the war, when Nazis were busy looting their occupied countries of their state treasures and artwork.
In addition to the Rosatis, we also meet Serafina Bettini, who, a decade after the war has put her partisan training and experience to use as Florence’s only female detective, but who is still haunted by the events at the end of the war that she can’t seem to remember, events that left her badly burned and scarred for life, both physically and mentally.
When someone begins to gruesomely pick off surviving members of the Rosati family, Serafina is assigned to the case, only to discover that she has ties to the family that harken back to those unremembered events. As she begins to piece together the motives behind the killing, she also begins to piece together the fragments of her own past.
One of the things that bothered me about the way this book ended was that there was one thread that was not really tied off and we are left wondering what happened to a particular character. I won’t say more because I don’t want to give away any clues to the ending, but after thinking on it a bit, I realize that it really is sort of the perfect ending to leave us feeling just a small, fleeting portion of the post-war futility so many faced. Survivor’s guilt, PTSD, wondering if loved ones are actually out there somewhere, villains escaping justice, and more. Yes, I think that was probably the most perfect ending that could have been written for this book.
The Light in the Ruins does an excellent job of portraying prejudices and stereotyping, which allow us to attribute a certain justification to our actions in order to assuage our guilt. It also hits on post-traumatic stress, the after effects of WWII on Italians, and the psychological effects of survivor’s guilt. While I thought that for a short book (305 pages in my paperback version) this book could be a bit drawn out, and I got pretty annoyed with Cristina pretty frequently, I more than enjoyed it. My only complaint is that the brief chapters written from the killer’s POV seemed as if they were intended to add a sinister layer to the overall story, which it did, but it felt incongruous with the character of the character (ha!) that turned out to be the killer. Also, while they try to present this book as a pulse-pounding thriller, I must say I disagree with that description. It’s a mystery, for sure, and maybe a slow burn (sometimes VERY slow), but thriller is a stretch.
On the whole, if you enjoy WWII lit, I think you’d enjoy this one. It offers a different setting than most and was well-researched. Though the book is short, the character development is spot on and I believe you will quickly become invested in these characters and this story. And I didn’t figure out the killer until almost the very end, so bravo for that!
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