Bojhalian takes us on a visit to Italy’s beautiful Tuscany during one of the most horrifying periods in that country’s history, when the German occupation had splintered the nation between the resistance, the collaborators, and the majority caught in between who mostly struggled to survive without selling their souls to the devil. But beyond a thought-provoking examination of choices and consequences under wartime conditions, Bojhalian also throws us into the middle of a hunt for a serial killer 10 years after the war’s end, a killer who is literally ripping the hearts out of members of the once-noble Rosati family whose beautiful estate had served as unwilling host to the Nazi occupiers 10 years earlier.
Bohjalian provides us a dizzying viewpoint with which to follow the action, which ping-pongs between the mid-1940s where we get to see the worst depredations of the war, to the mid-1950s where Italy’s only female homicide detective Serafina Bettini is on the trail of a killer whose terrifyingly cold descriptions of his revenge plot are interleaved between the alternating chapters. Serafina is herself a severely traumatized victim of the war, during which she operated as a talented teen-age assassin for the partisans who became her entire family, after her parents and brothers were slaughtered by the Nazis. We learn that she was severely burned and nearly died, but we lack specifics as Serafina herself has put a shroud over that portion of her memory.
As the story rockets back and forth, we are also introduced to a doomed love affair and archaeological history involving a looted Etruscan tomb—now in ruins—that was located on the Rosati estate, was the original draw to the Nazi art looters who took over the estate, and which becomes the metaphorical centerpiece of the two halves of the story. When Bojhalian focuses on the impact of the war on ordinary people, he is at his best. His thriller, while interesting and not nearly as transparent as some reviewers have implied, is less successful. I’m not sure why unless it is a certain sense of contrivance that brings the two halves of the story together too neatly.
Whatever its flaws, there is much effective story-telling in The Light in the Ruins, and for those of you looking for a good serial killer story with a twist, this one should keep you guessing.