Bohjalian’s 16 novel: Love story with a twist
LINCOLN — Lincoln author Chris Bohjalian’s 16th novel, which hits bookstores July 9, begins with a sadistic bloodbath and turns out to be a love story. “The Light in the Ruins” is set amidst the chaos of war-torn Tuscany in 1943, and features a German lieutenant and a young Italian beauty from a family of noble lineage, the Rosatis.
Bohjalian had known he wanted to tell a “big, sweeping love story, an epic, kind of a re-imagining of ‘Romeo and Juliet,’” for some time. He had first been inspired to do so after watching endless runs of a production of “West Side Story” at the Flynn Theater, a play that his daughter, Grace, appeared in as one of the Shark gang members’ girlfriends.
He didn’t begin work on it immediately after finishing No. 15. Instead, he waited for inspiration to strike. It finally did last year, on a bicycle ride through the Tuscan countryside, while on a family vacation.
“I was biking with my friend Greg Levendusky and we were looking from one hill to the village of Montisi,” Bohjalian said. “And we saw this old granary — which goes back to the 14th century — that once had a massive tower. And it was still beautiful but the tower is now only a few stories high. And my friend looked at me and he said, ‘The Nazis blew that up. It was once much higher.’
“And I said, ‘The Nazis were in Montisi?’
Over the coming weeks, Levendusky told Bohjalian all about the German presence in Italy during World War II. “He would tell me one ‘Nazis in Tuscany’ atrocity story after another.”
“Whenever we think of Tuscany now, we think of Chianti and sunflowers and goat cheese and bicycle tours,” Bohjalian said. “But for eight months in 1944, beautiful Tuscany was an innermost ring of Dante’s inferno … (the Nazis) had a scorched earth policy, as they were trying to hold off the Allies, plus it was a small civil war with the Italian blackshirts and the Italian partisans at each other’s throats.”
But for the novelist, the ultimate beauty was in the irony that despite the deliberate attempts to destroy it, beauty had prevailed against war.
“Back to that granary, they tried to blow it up so it couldn’t be used as a spotting tower,” he said. “It was 600 years old but it was so well built that part of it was still standing and it was, in fact, now a beautiful bed and breakfast. And that’s when I realized, this is my ‘Romeo and Juliet.’”
“It was a rundown pile of rubble and they rebuilt it into a beautiful villa where they live and work now.
But, as he admits, “‘Romeo and Juliet’ is a tough act to follow. And maybe that’s why the book evolved from beyond a pure reimagining of two young, doomed lovers.”
Bohjalian certainly added more than a few twists and turns of his own — “The Light in the Ruins” takes the “doomed” part of the equation and runs with it.
Spliced into the scenes of the young couple falling in love is a grisly murder mystery story, set 12 years later in Florence, as a serial killer targets the surviving members of the Rosati family one by one. This narrative thread focuses on a female investigator with her own searing wartime memories, assigned to the Rosati case.
The author is sympathetic to his characters, even all of their flaws — even when their flaws are morally reprehensible, or downright evil.
“When I begin my books all I have is a voice,” he said. “As I’m writing a book, little by little I understand who they are and begin to add flesh and bones to them.”
It is those characters and their motivations that holds the reader in a journey through the rich landscapes and leap-frogging in time that “The Light in the Ruins” depicts.
For all that a major plotline centers of a detective story, Bohjalian, for his part, does not think of his most recent novel as a murder mystery. He loves the way one reviewer characterized it — not as a “whodunit” but as a “whydunit.”
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