Author: Chris Bohjalian
Provided Synopsis: 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.
Review: One can surmise from the synopsis of the book that there will be a murder mystery, however I believe the greater strength of The Light in the Ruins is the exploration of the scars (both physical and emotional) left in the wake of war.
Set in the time period of the German occupation of Italy during World War II, this story was realistically violent. The author does not shy away from the cruelty of people; instead, he does a wonderful job with the explanation of why people make the choices they do. All of the actions of the characters seem to fall within the morally ambiguous zone, for what is viewed as traitorous by one character is received in a more forgiving light by another character. The overarching message that I received from this book is that you can never justify or nullify the actions of another until you take a walk in their shoes. For example, the killer of the Rosati family has a vendetta against them due to what occurred during the war. What the killer does not see, or refuses to see, is the pain and suffering that led up to a choice being made which altered the lives of everyone involved.
In my opinion, Serafina was the most interesting character of the story. She has been left deformed with burns from the war and the absence of memory about what happened to her. As a detective on the case, she is forced to remember what happened to her as it relates to the murders of the Rosatis. With the alternating time period, the reader is able to follow what exactly happened during the war along with the progression of the revenge plot against the family. It is stirring reading, but I would never go as far as to call it climatic. By including the narrative voice from the killer throughout the story, the author simultaneously detracts from the shock of his revelation. Or maybe I just felt this was the case since I read far too many murder mysteries…