The Light in the Ruins

9780385534819_p0_v1_s260x420Chris Bohjalian’s Light in the Ruins mixes a police procedural mystery with the horrors of war and a tale of revenge.  The gore of murdered corpses with hearts carved out of bodies sharply contrasts with the beauty of Florence and the surrounding Tuscan countryside.

The narrative alternates between the 1940s war as the Nazis gradually overwhelmed Italy and Mussolini’s Blackshirts, and a decade later in 1955 when a woman police detective investigates the brutal killing of the Rosati family.  Serafina, the only woman on the Italian police force who carries a gun, links the two timeframes by her participation as a young Italian underground rebel during the war.  The Rosati’s, wealthy landowners with a noble title and the target of the crazed killer, supported both the Nazis and the rebels during the war.  Antonio, the Rosati patriarch notes:

“We make compromises. We look the other way.  Then, when it’s over, we can’t look at ourselves in the mirror.”

Bohjalian cleverly inserts the voice of the killer at the beginning of chapters, teasing readers with the possibility of the identity.  At one point, the red herring is obvious when the killer notes that no one had assumed he is a woman.  No spoilers here, but, like all of Bojhalian’s stories, the solution is a let-down.  Nevertheless, to his credit, he neatly ties up all the loose plot lines, and everyone is accounted for in the ending.

Etruscan pendant with swastika symbols

Etruscan pendant with swastika symbols

Despite the anticlimactic ending, I enjoyed the suspense along the way, and the references to Italian art, the Uffizi Gallery, and Etruscan ruins.  The Rosati land includes an archeological discovery of an Etruscan tomb, where the Nazis are looking for a swastika among the ancient wall drawings.  That symbol does appear in Etruscan art, and has an older, more positive meaning than is ascribed to it today because of Hitler’s adoption of those crossed lines.

The glimpses into the war’s effect on Italians who seemed more concerned about preserving their art and lifestyle than fighting is balanced by the underground “partisans.”  Bohjalian noted his inspiration for the book came from a diary by Marchese Iris Origo, looking back on the war and the devastation to her lands – War in Val d’Orica  – a memoir that might be worth finding.

The Light in the Ruins will keep you riveted, whether you like to solve mysteries,  immerse yourself in historical drama, revel in the beauty of the Tuscan countryside  – or all of the above.

More reviews of Bohjalian books:


Cooking with Fernet Branca

Fernet Branca is a wine, but this is not a cookbook.   Gerald Samper  in James Hamilton-Paterson’s Cooking with Fernet Branca has a fixer upper villa in Tuscany – but this is not Under the Tuscan Sun.

This is one funny book.  If you appreciate droll British humor – like David Niven’s quip as the nude streaker ran by him on stage at the Oscar’s: “…isn’t it fascinating to think that the only laugh that man will probably ever get in his life was when he stripped off to show his shortcomings...”, you will be laughing out loud at and with the characters in this ridiculous book.

The story flips back and forth from Gerald Sampler, a ghost-writer for the memoirs of illiterate yet successful athletes – “an amaneusis to knuckleheads,”  and Marta, a refugee from Voynovia, a fictitious ex-Soviet Republic, who is composing the score for an R rated movie being filmed nearby.  Each has recently bought a house in the Italian countryside – right next door to each other.

As Gerald concocts his absurd recipes, e.g., live lampreys in sherry, alien pie (main ingredient – smoked cat), otter with lobster sauce, he sings fractured versions of Italian opera.  It’s sometimes better to skip some of his directions for cooking.  He falls down a ravine while trying to improve his view by dismantling an outhouse, staples his foot to the fence he is building, and keeps a running commentary on his feud with his neighbor, and the world  in general.

Marta is inspired by Gerald’s falsetto tones and incorporates them into her musical score.  More ingenious incidents involving helicopters and movie sets add to the craziness.  Throughout, Gerald and Marta drink the Fernet Branca (45% alcohol) and eat Voynovian delicacies.

If you need a plot, you will be disappointed.  But, if appreciate the turn of a phrase, the nuances that make you chuckle, and general frivolity – Cooking with Fernet Branca will lighten your day.

If you need more, there’s a sequel – Amazing Disgrace.