Two time periods alternate chapters in this story: 1943/44 and 1955. To say that Italy was in flux in 1943/44 would be an understatement. The war was turning against the Axis, and it was clear Italy would become a battleground. Germany, ostensibly Italy's ally, tore off the disguise of friend and became an occupier. Former enthusiastic supporters of the Fascist Blackshirts were hedging their bets. Anti-fascist partisans prowled the hills, sabotaging the German war effort. Ordinary Italians just tried to weather the storm.
For the noble Rosati family, living in the Villa Chimera in the Tuscan hill country near Florence, the harsh reality of war could still almost be ignored. Cristina, 18 years old, took daily rides on her beloved horse, went swimming in the pool with her young niece and nephew, and shared meals and wine with her sister-in-law and her parents. Her two brothers were in the army, but Vittore was nearby, in Florence, and Marco in Sicily. Maybe the war would be over soon and they could all be together once again.
But the turmoil of Italy, as the war drew to its cataclysmic end, plays out in microcosm at the Villa Chimera. There are angry murmurs in the village, and even among some family members, about Antonio Rosati's having Germans as guests at the Villa Chimera. Now, one of those German guests and his own daughter Cristina seem to be falling in love. As the fighting between the Germans and the Allies and partisans intensifies, the Tuscan hills become a battleground and the Villa Chimera transforms from a haven to a pawn of war.
Ten years after the war's end, Serafina Bettini is one of very few female police officers in Italy, and definitely the only homicide detective. Together with her partner and mentor, Paolo Ficino, she is investigating the shocking case of a killer targeting the Rosati family.
This killer, whose chilling voice appears at the start of the 1955 chapters, has already slaughtered two members of the family and cut out their hearts. The killer tells us that the job won't be finished until all the descendants of Antonio Rosati are wiped out. Serafina's investigation will bring her back to the Tuscan hills where she fought alongside her partisan comrades, and memories of the battle that left her scarred in body and mind.
I tore through The Light in the Ruins in just two sittings. Bohjalian deftly brings his large cast of characters to life. They are complex and flawed; the Rosatis put into a nearly impossible situation that forces us to ask ourselves what we would have done in their situation.
In mystery fiction, it's almost a cliché at this point to have the killer's monologue interspersed in the story, but it didn't feel that way in this book. Instead, each time the killer speaks, it ratchets up the tension as another Rosati is stalked and we receive tantalizing hints about the killer's motivation and identity.
Alternating chapters between two different time periods is also a commonplace in novels now, but the technique is used to good effect here. The story of Serafina and the Rosatis in 1955 shows us the scars of the war, and the 1943/44 chapters vividly illustrate how they were earned.
The Light in the Ruins is a gripping, suspenseful and haunting historical novel that should appeal to regular readers of Bohjalian's work and fans of historical novels and mysteries. Hardcore mystery readers might quibble at the book's relative lack of investigative detail, but I think most would welcome a series featuring Serafina Bettini.
Disclosure: I received a free review copy from Netgalley.