‘Light in the Ruins’ signifies trouble ahead

  • Posted: Sunday, August 25, 2013 12:01 a.m.
Chris Bohjalian's latest novel.
Chris Bohjalian's latest novel.

“The Light in the Ruins,” by Chris Bohjalian. Knopf Doubleday. 2013. 320 pages. $25.95. Available as e-book.

In another story involving World War II, Chris Bohjalian imagines a doomed family and two horrific murders to create an atmosphere of tension and turmoil.

He throws in a female detective in 1955 Italy and a short lesson on what the Nazis did to their “friends” in Italy.

It’s both social commentary and a lament about the ravages of war.

The doomed family are the Rosatis, led by a marchese, Antonio, and the marchesa, Beatrice. They have three children, young Cristina, studious Vittore and tragic Marco. They also have a stunning Tuscan villa with an olive grove, a vineyard, cattle and more. There’s a swimming pool, and there’s the source of many of their troubles — the ancient Etruscan tomb.

It seems the dead Etruscans are exacting their revenge for having the tomb opened and its artifacts taken to a museum. Death becomes the most regular and reliable product of the villa at Monte Volta, a once beautiful sign of royalty and wealth.

The villa, Villa Chimera, is as much a character as the unfortunate family and their German occupiers. A Chimera, if you remember your Greek mythology, is a fire-breathing monster with a lion’s head, a goat’s body, and a serpent’s tail. There’s a statue of one in the villa’s garden.

Oh, how appropriate, since the several other meanings of the world include a fabrication of the mind, an impossible dream, a person made up of diverse tissue. Could that statue represent the abrasive daughter-in-law, Francesca? Or the iron-willed, proud mother?

Cristina has an impossible dream of life with a German lieutenant who’s already lost a foot. Serafina, the female detective, was horribly burned during her time in the resistance and tries to conceal her deformities. The Rosatis, too, are disfigured by the war, first being cooperative with the Germans, who want to see the tombs. They do not approve of their daughter’s relationship, but they feel powerless to stop it, lest the wrath of the other German officers bring them trouble. And they do bring trouble — trouble, tragedy, annihilation.

Bohjalian uses the German characters to show they are greedy, delusional, cowardly and vindictive.

Revenge is the theme of the novel, starting with the bloody death of Francesca, Marco’s widow. To cope with her huge losses in the war, Francesca has sex with men she sees once or maybe twice. She has them take her to her favorite restaurant in Florence, and then she beds them. She lives in a dingy, third-story apartment and works at a dress shop — a chance to meet men who are buying for their wives.

Bohjalian uses the popular literary trend of switching times and sometimes narrators, from chapter to chapter. It’s 1943 at the villa, and Christina is in the pool in her white swimsuit when her lieutenant arrives. It’s 1955 and Serafina is looking at the heart in the ashtray at Francesca’s apartment. Then the murderer presents a monologue on his or her plans for the next victim — Beatrice, giving few hints as to motive, but making it plain that all the Rosatis must die.

Is it a German left for dead after the violent firefight at Monte Volta? Is it an Italian who doesn’t like what the Rosatis did for the Germans? Is it a woman? Is it, perhaps, Serafina, who begins to remember what happened when she was so severely burned?

Bohjalian offers all these possibilities through his various narrations. But he spends so much time in 1943, describing the war, detailing real history and describing the atrocities Italy suffered, that the 1955 investigation is almost a footnote.

Maybe because Serafina does not know herself readers know next to nothing about her. But readers know next to nothing about the Rosatis, either. Francesca is exacting and demanding. Her children are her life, but they don’t become real — they are figures that hint at the tragedy to come.

We learn so little about Serafina’s detective partner, Paolo, that he is only a silhouette.

It begs comparison to Bohjalian’s excellent “Skeletons at the Feast,” set near the end of World War II, but does not reach the depths and emotion of that novel. Bohjalian used World War I as the backdrop for “Sandcastle Girls” which brought to vivid life the massacre of Armenians in Aleppo, Syria.

His settings are evocative in all three books, but his people here are a bit one-dimensional in what should be a thrilling story. “Light in the Ruins” is a good enough mystery-history, but Bohjalian has done much better. Maybe he’ll spend more time on his next novel and return to the character-driven, moving stories that delight his readers.

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