“The Light in the Ruins” has a lot going for it. It’s a murder mystery that takes place in Italy — not just Italy but Tuscany — that has its roots in World War II but is solved in 1955 and involves a once prosperous family that has fallen to ruin.
The story opens in 1955 with the gruesome murder in Florence of Francesca Rosati. When she dies, she’s a widow in her 40s who works in a tailor shop and sleeps with men she doesn’t know very well because she doesn’t want to be alone. A decade earlier she lived on an estate called Villa Chimera outside a small Tuscan village. The killer slashes her throat, rips her ribcage apart, cuts her heart out and leaves it on a table in her small apartment.
Florence police, including Serafina Bettini, the only female detective on the force, figure the violent nature of the killing indicates revenge. They don’t know until Francesca’s mother-in-law, Beatrice Rosati, dies a similar death that they’re dealing with someone with a vendetta against the Rosatis. But why kill harmless women?
The Rosatis once were happy family, minor nobility who lived on their villa, on which hired hands tended their cattle, olive groves and other needs. Before World War II, the villa had acquired modest archeological interest when, while digging to improve their estate, workers encountered an Etruscan tomb. The most valuable relics were moved to a museum in Arezzo, but the tomb was left undisturbed open.
In the spring and summer of 1943, Nazi art plunderers and researchers looking for artifacts that might prove the superiority of the Aryan race took an interest in the Etruscan tomb and, by extension, the Rosatis’ estate. They came and went as they pleased irrespective of the Rosatis’ wishes.
The war took its toll on the family. Beatrice lost her husband and, and Francesca lost her husband and her children. What’s more, as the Nazis were fleeing the Allied advance north, the villa was laid waste in a pitched battle with British forces.
Serafina, the detective, was a teenager during the war who joined a partisan cell and had the scars to show for it. She knew that the terrible burns she suffered came during a battle near the Rosatis’ villa, but only later does she realize that she and several of her fellow partisans had hidden in the Etruscan tomb - until one of the Rosatis, at the point of a Nazi rifle, revealed their whereabouts.
Christina Rosati, who also was a teenager during the Nazi occupation, fell in love with a German lieutenant who had been assigned light duty in Italy after being wounded on the Russian front. He was killed in combat sometime after his unit fled Italy, and Christina remained single.
It is Christina who discovered Francesca’s body, and who becomes central to Serafina’s investigation. The two women are about the same age, and despite vastly different experiences during the war, come to appreciate each other’s loss.
The Rosatis detested both Mussolini and the Nazis, but the adult family members knew that to defy the Nazi would mean trouble. To workers and nearby townspeople, the family’s cooperation looked a lot like collaboration. That, Serafina and her partner believed, would have been ample motive for someone the Rosatis offended to target family members - even a decade after the war.
“The Light in the Ruins” is a beautiful and powerful novel and deals with a part of World War II that’s largely overlooked. The author brings his characters to life, both during the German occupation and in Italy during the 1950s. What was striking was how much so many people lost during the war and how scarred they were, physically or emotionally. A decade after the war, even the Rosatis’ lovely estate still lies in ruins, a relic of a happier time.
The author, Chris Bojalian, has written more than a dozen novels, including “Midwives,” which became a No, 1 New York Times bestseller; several of his novels have been made into movies.
Walt Braun is editorial page editor of The Mercury.