Monday, May 12, 2014

Book 46: The Light in the Ruins

I've been a bit disappointed with Bohjalian's most recent novels.  They were still good but just not quite what I had come to expect of him.  While I don't think this ranks up with my favorite novels of his, such as Skeletons at the Feast, it is a definite improvement over the last two, and I was excited to keep reading and see what happened.  It probably helped that it was historical fiction wrapped in a murder mystery.
It appears that Italy is becoming a rather popular setting for Holocaust related books and novels at the moment.  At least, I feel like I've seen more of them in the past few years than I had previously (A Thread of Grace is still my favorite, and I'm not sure if I would include that as part of the more recent trend of books I've been seeing or not).  Unlike the last two I read (It Happened in Italy and The Golden Hour), I actually really liked this one.  I think that it helps quite a bit that Bohjalian didn't use a first person narrator, and used his novel to explore various perspectives.  While there is a young woman who is a bit naive in her interactions with the Germans, and has a German suitor, she is only one of many characters rather than the protagonist.  Additionally, she still seems a bit more aware of what is going on around her.
After a brutal killing in 1950s Florence, Serafina, the only woman in the crime squad, is assigned to the case with her partner, and when a second murder targets the same family, Serafina quickly focuses in on the past and the war as the motive behind the deaths.  The novel flashes back and forth between the investigation, and World War II era Tuscany and the family home of the Rosatis.  Their oldest son is at war in Sicily, the middle child is working in Florence helping to preserve Italy's cultural heritage by working with the Germans, and hoping to prevent them from plundering too much, and the baby of the family, Cristina, lives at home at Villa Chimera with her parents and sister-in-law Francesca.  Cristina eventually begins a flirtation with a German soldier that works with her brother Vittore in Florence.  Serafina and Cristina are around the same age, but Serafina was part of the resistance, and lost her family to the regime, though they had initially benefitted from it.  However, Serafina has holes in her memories surrounding the war, especially the event that caused her injury, and the interactions with the Rosatis and her visit to the ruins of the Villa Chimera cause flashes of recognition.
The novel examines the past and how it still haunts Italy years later.  While some such as Serafina could proudly say that had always fought against the Germans, for others the past is much darker and murkier.  They either supported Mussolini, or collaborated with the Germans.  The Rosatis, for example, by trying to appease the Germans, end up looking like collaborators to the surrounding villagers.  By the end of the war, there wasn't really a way to walk a middle path, and everyone faced losses.
I think one thing that helped this novel is that it focused on a relatively small story and scale.  Bohjalian didn't try to force some discovery about the Jews into his novel, and the characters remained focused on their own survival and that of their country.  It seems like so often authors feel they need to address the Holocaust when writing novels set in the war, and it becomes almost unrealistic because not every family sheltered Jews or paid attention to what was going on, purposely keeping a blind eye.  Also, while there is the mystery of the killer, Bohjalian as usual is much more focused on the characters and the story.  As a result, readers can make guesses, but it's not one of those stories that sets up the clues so that the reader can figure it out as they read.  The murders and deaths are almost beside the point, and used as a starting point to explore the past.  The novel was an improvement on both Bohjalian's previous novels and other novels about World War II Italy, and as a result of that I call it a success.  While it wasn't the best of either of those previously listed categories, it was worth the read, and I am looking forward to Bohjalian's next novel rather than feeling subdued cautiuos optimism.

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