This, Chris Bohjalian‘s latest, is one to stick in the ears … it opens with Mark Bramhall (a personal favorite, and clearly one of Bohjalian’s as well, as he voices five of Bohjalian’s 14 aurally available titles) sounding surreally sinister and somehow detached: “It was so I could cut out her heart.” Bramhall initially, immediately haunts the novel, and intermittently returns through the 300-plus goosebumpy pages (or 11.5 eyeball-popping hours) to commit the next methodical murders. In between the heart-stopping interruptions, Bohjalian unhurriedly divulges identity and motive while Cassandra Campbell crisply narrates the parallel stories of two women who survived World War II as best as they could.
In 1955 Florence, Serafina arrives on the crime scene to investigate the brutal murder of Francesca Rosati, the widowed former daughter-in-law of a once powerful, privileged noble family before the war. Serafina is the only woman in her homicide unit, and as such, “the men still treated her with either ham-handed attempts or outright condescension.” Serafina’s police career, however – even including Francesca’s horrific death – is not nearly as terrifying or dangerous as her teenage past when she fought with the partisan resistors against the German army. Her resulting scars she wears inside and out.
Serafina soon learns that the late Francesca’s only remaining relative with whom she maintained regular contact was her sister-in-law Cristina Rosati. Through most of the war, the idyllic Rosati estate managed to stay peacefully insulated, even in spite of the fact that the Rosati sons – one of whom was married to Francesca – served in the Italian Army. Then in 1943, war literally arrives on the doorsteps of the insulated villa – first as curious visitors to a small but notable Etruscan burial site on the family’s property, and then as occupiers who invade the expansive home. Mistaking soft gentility for love, Cristina, then just 18, falls in first-love with a Nazi officer, further endangering the family’s safety.
As teenagers, as adults, as enemies, as allies, death unknowingly brings Cristina and Serafina together multiple times. And each time, both are resurrected again and again – Cristina with her Christ-derived appellation and her returning affinity for the Etruscan graves, Serafina whose name means “burning one,” who is repeatedly reborn from the ashes.
Focused on the desperate ending of World War II, Ruins is a companion-title-or-sorts to Bohjalian’s 2008 Skeletons at the Feast; both, in essence, feature American ‘enemies’ – the Italians in Ruins, the Germans in Skeletons. And yet, once again, Bohjalian insists in matters of war, love, survival, “judge not, that ye be not judged.” His haunting penchant for blurring lines, perspectives, sides, casts rigidity aside here, proving ‘black’ and ‘white’ should only be used to label the ink and paper on the printed page. Humanity cannot, should not, will not be so simply defined.