“The Light in the Ruins,” Chris Bohjalian’s brilliantly crafted historical novel, begins “on the first Tuesday of June in 1955,” in the voice of an anonymous killer who describes his lurid executions with a morbid insouciance: “Why did I slice open her nightgown? I didn’t violate her. It was so I could cut out her heart. A woman with the lilting name of Francesca Rosati, who had once been a Tuscan marchese’s daughter-in-law, was my first. But, as you will see, not my last.”
Setting his story in the glorious Italian hills south of Florence, the author switches back and forth from the mid-1940s, while the war is raging, to the mid-’50s, when the murders take place. Interspersed throughout the story are more reports from the killer, who has already made it clear from Page 1 that he — or she — is out to destroy the remaining members of an entire family. The alternating time frame keeps the reader suspicious of everyone, but whether likable or loathsome, Bohjalian’s characters are utterly compelling.
In 1943, the Villa Chimera, owned by the noble Rosati family, is visited by a German officer and an Italian major. Cristina, the Rosatis’ winsome 18-year-old daughter, and their daughter-in-law Francesca (who, as we know, will be the killer’s first victim) are informed by the soldiers that select artistic treasures “may have to be moved to Germany for safeguarding until the end of the war.” Although Francesca understands that “safeguarding was a euphemism for theft,” she nonetheless knows she must take the soldiers to the “small Etruscan tomb” that was uncovered on the property. “It seems there were Germanic tribes here.And the Reichsführer is interested in the origins of the race.”
Believing the “small tomb” to be a large necropolis, the Nazis move in, looking for valuable artifacts. And as the Allies get closer, the pastoral setting of the villa, with its olive groves and verdant slopes, becomes a German encampment.
Fast forward to 1955: The case of the serial killer who’s targeting the Rosatis is being investigated in Florence by Chief Inspector Paolo Ficino. Working closely with him is Serafina Bettini, “the only woman in the small homicide unit, and despite her work with the partisans in 1943 and 1944 — when, in fact, she was a teenager — the men still treated her with either ham-handed attempts at chivalry or outright condescension.” Even with disfiguring scars on her back and neck caused by a fiery explosion in her teens, she is as beautiful as she is bold. Paolo hesitates to take her to the crime scene, where “someone had cut out the heart from a woman’s chest,” but when he does and describes the villa where the victim once lived, Serafina recognizes it as the place where she suffered her burns. Memories of the past begin to pull her into turbulent emotional territory.
The cast continues to expand, time frames seem to converge, and the killer is still at large. But the book’s payoff is greater than figuring out whodunit. Bohjalian repeatedly confronts us with the moral dilemmas of wartime. For example, as Antonio Rosati grapples with the ignoble imperative of having to coexist with their German “partners,” he muses: “We make compromises. We look the other way. Then, when it’s over, we can’t look at ourselves in the mirror.” His daughter Cristina recalls a canto from Dante: “My family,” she thinks with disgust, “is commingling with the cowardly angels. We will pay. We will all pay.”
“The Light in the Ruins” was inspired by a memoir written by the marchesa Iris Origo that “chronicled life on her sun-drenched Tuscan estate when the nightmare of the Second World War rolled like a tsunami across her and her husband’s lands.” In this novel, Bohjalian contemplates painful choices while offering a tour-de-force murder mystery, heartbreaking romance and a dazzling denouement that will tear your heart out.
Zukerman is a flutist, the author of four books, and the creator of the Verbier Vlog and the Tanglewood Vlog on musicalamerica.com.
THE LIGHT IN THE RUINS
By Chris Bohjalian
Doubleday. 309 pp. $25.95