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The Light in the Ruins by Chris BohjalianTitle: The Light in the Ruins
Author: Chris Bohjalian
ISBN: 9780385534819
No. of Pages: 320
Origins: NetGalley and Doubleday Books
Genre: Historical Fiction
Release Date: 9 July 2013
Bottom Line: Fascinating subject and extremely well-written


“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 was 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.”

Thoughts: While much has been written about the Nazi occupation and the battle for Europe, very little has ever been written about the Italian experience during the war. Chris Bohjalian tackles this unusual but highly fascinating subject with his new novel The Light in the Ruins. In it, the Rosati family must carefully tread the thin line that separates a Nazi supporter with a Nazi detractor, but their increasing association with German soldiers will have disastrous results on their family. Meanwhile, in 1955 Serafina Bettini is a survivor. Having spent the war years fighting against fascism, Mussolini and the Nazi regime, she has the physical scars to prove her dedication to a cause. As her search for the Rosati family killer takes her ever closer to the area she for which she fought during the war years, she must draw on her resilience to stop the killer and help heal the wounds flayed open by first the Germans and then the mystery.

Cristina is the main character in the scenes from the 1940s while Serafina is very much the heroine in 1955. Cristina is the sheltered daughter of a long-lived family with means. While some readers may view her relationship with the German officer as understandable, given that it is her first exposure to men since she came of age, others will find her manipulative and extremely self-serving. Meanwhile, Serafina’s war experiences are very different, and as such, she is the much more sympathetic of the two women. Serafina is everything Cristina is not, and her willingness to sacrifice herself for her convictions is extremely impressive, especially in light of Cristina’s selfishness. While it might be easy to argue that they are both victims of their circumstances, Serafina’s stoicism and willingness to fight put Cristina’s lack of convictions to shame.

This same holds true once as Serafina continues her investigation. Whereas Serafina has every reason to discontinue her search into the case and into her past, she cannot and will not do so. Her fortitude is inspiring and a testament to her strength of character. Again, Cristina pales in comparison. Her reactions to the tragedy unfolding around her are too subdued and suspicious given the previous insight into her character. Their almost opposing personalities are not just an interesting plot device to enliven Mr. Bohjalian’s characters. It plays a key role in the resolution to the murder mystery as well.

The Light in the Ruins shines a light on a little-known arena of World War II – what Italians experienced during the near-constant tug of war between fascism and democracy that occurred during the 1930s and 40s. The Rosati family’s experiences are just a microcosm of the fight for survival in a world with conflicting loyalties and constantly-changing political regimes. Mr. Bohjalian uses gorgeous imagery to highlight the tumultuous environment that existed during the war, as well as the long-lasting physical and psychological scars that dot each person as well as the landscape a decade after the war’s end. Its haunting ending will leave readers scuttling to the Internet trying to learn more about this fascinating period in Italian history.

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