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by Chris Bohjalian
Doubleday, July 2013
320 pages
ISBN: 0385534817

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THE LIGHT IN THE RUINS, an enthralling and artfully structured mystery by Chris Bohjalian, opens with the words of a killer who will soon murder a woman and cut out her heart. The year is 1955 and the place is Florence Italy, just ten years after the end of WWII. Events of that war, the actions of the Germans, the fighting, the harrowing nature of the Italian experience--being part of the Axis and then being an occupied nation--are all central to this fascinating tale.

The victim, Francesca Rosati, is the daughter-in-law of nobility, of a wealthy family whose estate, the Villa Chimera,was ravished during the war. She had not recovered from the horrific losses she suffered, but we are at first uncertain about what exactly happened to her and her family and their property during that period. The novel goes back and forth between 1943/44 and 1955. We learn, in the present time of the novel, certain facts about characters, but we do not know how or why these things occurred, their meaning or import. Beloved people are dead, but how did they die? A woman is uncertain if her lover is alive or dead. Why doesn't she know? In the WWII sections, we discover the details. Knowing the certain fate of characters adds to the emotional impact of these scenes.

Serafina Bettini, Florence's only female detective,is assigned to the case. Her own history is part of the unknown here. She has been both physically and emotionally scarred by the war and cannot remember most of what happened to her. She lost her family, became a partisan fighting the Germans, and then was severely burned in a firefight, almost dying from her injuries. As she investigates, Serafina begins to feel that the murder is linked to events of the war, perhaps some sort of vendetta. When she visits the estate she realizes that the area where she herself had fought was nearby. An ancient Etruscan burial site is situated on the grounds, and when Serafina walks through the tomb, she finds it vaguely familiar. While she is there, another Rosati is gruesomely murdered.

The question of who might want to destroy the surviving family members becomes crucial. As we learn about their experience during the war, we see how difficult it was for the Italians to survive. Often that survival meant accepting the Germans into their midst in ways that might be misconstrued as collaboration. The patriarch Antonio felt he had to entertain the Germans at his villa. Cristina Rosati, a teenager at the time, was romantically involved with a German soldier. Her older brother Vittore, an archaeologist, was assigned to help the Germans gather Italian art to take back to Germany. He believed he was working to prevent them from totally ransacking the artifacts, but others might not see his actions in that light. The moral dilemma is exacerbated when a troop of partisans arrives and needs a hiding place.

Interspersed with the two time periods, we continue to hear the voice of the killer, explaining who his next targets will be and how he will go about executing them. Much tension is built up through this technique. As the book nears its end, the reader may have one or two possible culprits in mind. The real killer, however, is not necessarily a suspect. Information that we learn late in our reading is crucial to his identity. This is perhaps the only flaw in an otherwise compelling read.

Anne Corey is a writer, poet, teacher and botanical artist in New York's Hudson Valley.

Reviewed by Anne Corey, November 2013

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Contact: Yvonne Klein (ymk@reviewingtheevidence.com)

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