Book: The Light in the Ruins by Chris Bohjalian (July 2013) (read on a Kindle for this review)
I didn’t want to put this book down while I was reading it, and I didn’t want it to end. It is a delicious mystery novel set in recent history of Florence, Italy, one of the most glorious cities in the world.
What magnetic force has made the city of Florence, both rich in art and plagued with political and social uproar? Of all the places I visited in Italy, it was Tuscan Florence I felt I could settle in to. And yet, as The Light in the Ruins illustrates, there has been a price to pay for all that beauty. Real life is not as orderly as impressive architecture.
However, when I think of upheaval in Florence, I tend to think of the early Renaissance, the Medicis and the “mad monk”, Savanorola. But in The Light in the Ruins, Chris Bohjalian unfolds more recent history–the horrors of World War II as it affected Florence and the surrounding countryside.
His book segues between 1943 and a murder case in 1955 that illustrates how the divided loyalties during the war had a lasting effect. ( I’m reminded of another book I reviewed some time ago, The Sadness of the Samurai, about the long-lasting effects of Fascism and the Spanish Revolution.)
In the flashback, Bohjalian creates characters that personify the Germans–some repellant and some sympathetic; and the Italians divided between collaborating (forced or voluntary) and secret and violent resistance. Among other moral dilemmas, he delves into the complex decisions of those Italians who wanted to protect their national art treasures and the Germans who wanted to confiscate them. Were the Italians and Germans allies or were the Germans occupiers? How far should one go in order to survive? What was acceptable collateral damage?
The book starts with the murder of a widow of a member of the wealthy Rosati family, holders of a title that is a relic of the glory days of Italy. The family has fallen on hard times since the war, accused by locals of too much coziness with the Germans, and by the Germans of failure to cooperate fully.
Sarafina Bettini, the only female police detective in the region, is scarred physically and psychologically from the war because of her actions as part of the resistance. She methodically tracks down leads in the case while discovering flashes of a part of her life that her mind has refused to face.
The ruins of the title most obviously refer to the underground Etruscan tombs on the Rosati estate, but symbolically link to the lives and property left in ruins by first the war and then a string of horrific murders.
The police work presents the reader with enough false leads to keep things interesting. The killer, who speaks directly to us from time to time, makes the spine tingle. The scenes in the 1943 with the specter of the Allies arriving and the Nazis fighting what they know by now is a battle in which they have nothing more to lose paints a heartbreaking picture of the despair in Italy.
Besides the gruesome murders, there is a verboten love affair, universal distrust of neighbors, revenge motives galore, pondering of social classes and of course the who-is-next suspense of a killer on the loose. It is rather amazing how much delightful reading is crammed in to this fairly short book.
If the traveler who reads has been to Florence, or is yearning to go, the alluring descriptions of countryside in The Light in the Ruins will definitely appeal. But you don’t have to be in love with Tuscany to love this book. In fact, I’m looking forward to exploring more of Bohjalian’s prolific output of novels.
Note: The photos above are all used with creative commons or common use licenses.