The latest novel from Chris Bohjalian, The Light in the Ruins is an amazing accomplishment: historical fiction, suspenseful who-dun-it and a compelling character study meshed into a fascinating novel. Moving effortlessly between 1943 and 1955 Florence, Italy, the story follows police investigator Serafina Bettini as she investigates a series of grisly murders involving the Rosati family. The Rosati’s history intersects with Serafina’s own mysterious past and the actions of many in the waning days of WWII.
As an avid reader of historical fiction, I have read countless novels set during WWII in various countries: England, France, the US, and Germany, but this is the first work of fiction that I can remember reading set in Italy. Bohjalian does a wonderful job of bringing history to life through his characters and events without devolving into a history lesson or list of events and characters. Italy in 1943 was facing the reality that that their German allies had become their occupiers. The variety of feelings and reactions to the Germans from the Italians in the novel reminds the reader of the depth of confusion and complexity of the ever-changing dynamics of WWII.
Serafina is the only female inspector on the Florence police; her work with the Italian Resistance during WWII has given her a set of unusual skills. Serafina is scarred from her life during the war, both physically and emotionally, and as her investigation continues, her own history comes to light as well. As a main character Serafina is compelling: smart, tenacious, curious and mysterious. The reader wants her to be successful in figuring out her current case, as well as unraveling her own past.
The Rosatis are an interesting family as well. Without giving too much of the story away, their family actions in the war were as varied as the family members themselves, and their family villa becomes a setting for events both in the 40’s and the 50’s. The Light in the Ruins of the title refers to an Etruscan tomb on the ground of the family villa that becomes the center of events in both time strands of the novel.
The story is full of gripping drama and intrigue. Brief passages from the killer are terrifying and intelligent. Bohjalian weaves historical narrative deftly with an intricate plot in this fast-paced novel. I highly recommend historical fiction readers pick up a copy of The Light in the Ruins. Hardcover edition here and Kindle edition here.