A chimera is a mythical beast, part lion, part serpent, part goat. The word can also describe something that is there and then not, shifting from one thing into another. Chris Bohjalian clearly had both meanings in mind when writing The Light in the Ruins. Villa Chimera is the name he gives the Florentine estate in this chimerical novel that flows back and forth in time. It’s a historical novel, a romance and a murder mystery. It is, in short, an intriguing tale of Bohjalian complexity.
The Light in the Ruins takes place at the end of World War II. Italy, an Axis power along with Germany and Japan, is under German protection — or German occupation, depending on where you stand. Either way, the country endures privation and bombing, and by 1944, the strain is being felt even by the Rosati family waiting out the war inside remote Villa Chimera. With its olive groves and horses and ancient Etruscan burial site, the ancestral home is the pride of the Rosati family. It becomes of interest to the Nazis, as well. They arrive, demanding a tour of the villa’s necropolis and professing an interest in preserving and safeguarding its artifacts. Art lovers? Not exactly. The Rosatis understand “ safeguarding was a euphemism for theft.”
The story also takes place after the war in 1955, when Cristina Rosati discovers the body of her sister-in-law Francesca Rosati. Francesca has been brutally murdered, her heart cut out. Like Cristina, Francesca had once lived in Villa Chimera, but that was before her husband and children were killed in the war and the villa itself was reduced to rubble.
The murder case goes to Florence Police Department’s only female investigator, Serafina Bettini, who has chimerical qualities herself. She is beautiful but was badly burned and disfigured in the war. Her past is shrouded, her name is one of her own choosing. Serafina means the burning one or perhaps the burned one.
Cristina and Serafina are the same age and of the same nationality, but there the similarity ends. During the war, Serafina defied the Axis powers and fought with the partisans, Italy’s ragtag resistance army. Cristina, on the other hand, fell in love with one of the Nazi soldiers and is known in her village as “the one who slept with the Germans.”
One of the pleasures of Bohjalian, author of the bestselling Midwives and Oprah pick The Sandcastle Girls, is the deft way he reveals his characters. He’s done his homework here, portraying life in German-occupied Italy with historical detail but giving it a human face. When the American allies invade Italy, the alliance between Germany and Italy, never as solid as it appeared, shifts and frays. In a time of war, being a chimera can come at a hefty price. “We make compromises. We look the other way,” says one character. “Then, when it’s over, we can’t look at ourselves in the mirror.”
Betrayal and revenge are at the heart of this novel in which circumstance muddies everyone’s motives and almost the entire cast of The Light in the Ruins proves to be other than what it seems. The single character of whom the reader can be certain is the murderer, who addresses the reader directly in brief first-person sections. The homicides — Francesca is only the first — are as savage as they are deliberate. “I wanted to be sure that everyone knew I was not merely another in a long line of secretly pathetic serial killers.” Very considerate for a serial killer.
The reader may realize whodunnit before Serafina does, but Bohjalian quickens the pace and builds suspense, bringing the resentments and betrayals of the past right up to the present. As facades architectural and personal crumble in the war sections, Serafina, 11 years later, must piece together the trail of the killer before another person dies. Even as she works against the clock to catch the murderer, her past threatens to catch up with her.
Though marred occasionally by plodding prose and intrusive exposition, The Light in the Ruins is plotted with an elegance worthy of an Etruscan. It pivots between creation and destruction, the past and the present, and the uneasy chimerical points where they collide.
Ellen Kanner is the author of “Feeding the Hungry Ghost: Life, Faith and What to Eat for Dinner.”