'The Light in the Ruins': After the ravages of war, rays of hope

In Chris Bohjalian's latest, a noble Italian family is splintered by the war. But all is not lost.

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Be forewarned: "The Light in the Ruins" isn't for the faint of heart. Before the reader finishes page two of best-selling author Chris Bohjalian's 16th book, a woman has already been murdered, with her heart actually cut out and left behind by the killer as if it were a dropped business card.

Yeah, good times. Mr. Bohjalian wastes no time in getting his particular blend of historical fiction and mystery going. We immediately become acquainted with the Rosatis, a family of nobility living in an Italian villa in the spring and summer of 1943.


By Chris Bohjalian
Doubleday ($25.95).

On the grounds of Villa Chimera are ancient Etruscan tombs with elaborate artwork and pottery, all of which attract the interest of German and Italian soldiers.

A Nazi soldier also becomes attracted to 18-year-old Cristina Rosati; naturally, the feeling is mutual, although obviously not celebrated by the rest of the Rosati family. Villa Chimera becomes occupied by soldiers and a gunfight ensues. Lives are lost and forever changed.

Fast-forward more than a decade to 1955. The war is over, the villa is in ruins, the surviving family members are distanced either by geography or estrangement -- and a killer is on the loose with a vendetta against the Rosatis still among the living.

The motive would appear to be connected to the war, according to the theory offered by detective Serafina Bettini, one of the lead investigators into Francesca Rosati's murder. Serafina, whose name means "the burning one," has her own tragic past that is entwined with the Rosati family's losses.

Mr. Bohjalian's exploration of her ghosts and demons makes Serafina his most developed and compelling character in this interlocking story.

Mr. Bohjalian has a well-honed ability to keep his reader guessing the answers to one or two key questions that are pivotal to a plot that transitions smoothly between 1943-44 and 1955. These transitions are aided nicely with brief interjections of narration from the murderer him (or her) self, with enough tantalizing interest to continue turning the pages.

For some, this latest from Mr. Bohjalian may seem like reheated leftovers from his 2008 "Skeletons at the Feast." There are enough eyebrow-raising similarities in "The Light in the Ruins" to either delight fans or make others feel as if they've already met some of his characters.

Some early reviewers have compared "The Light in the Ruins" to Romeo and Juliet set in World War II. Without discounting that perspective, it is possible to look at the novel in a different light.

Given its frequent references to towers, airplanes overhead, a single tower standing before falling, burning, and the 11-year gap between the action, Mr. Bohjalian's symbolism to 9/11 appears to be a commentary on humankind as a whole in the 11 years since the attacks.

By using the backdrop of a long-ago war, he seems to be reassuring and reminding his reader that in tragedy and unspeakable circumstances such as the destruction of homeland, family, appearance and lives, there is always the ability to see even the smallest glimpse of light.


Melissa M. Firman is a writer, book editor and nonprofit professional living in Cranberry (MelissaFirman.com).


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