All The Light We Cannot See is a callback to the era of the traditional novel. No stream-of-consciousness, no heteroglossia, no testing the reader’s patience for the sake of “art” or pedagogy. It is straight-up historical fiction, set between 1934 and 1944 (as well as 1974 and 2014 for a brief epilogue) in France and Germany. It tells the story of a blind Parisian girl who joins the French Resistance, and an orphan German boy who has to choose between a life in the mines or joining the Wehrmacht using his brilliance with radio technology. The two teenagers of course wind up crossing paths, during the little-known siege of Saint-Malo.
Saint-Malo is an ancient town on the coast of Brittany, past home of buccaneers and Normans; a true citadel of the West. Due to false intelligence and the nature of wartime priorities back then, this seaside town west of Normandy was bombarded by American artillery and aeroplanes in August of 1944.
Our two characters, Marie-Laure and Werner, alternate chapters. The novel begins with the bombing, then jumps back in time to 1934, and works its way to the battle and onwards. We watch them grow, and encounter the war from opposite sides. The girl is strong-willed, but the boy is weak-willed. Leaving aside the time-jump (being the narrative crutch that it is), this is where the novel begins to fall apart.
The fact that the blind girl is strong and the Nazi youth kid is a weakling is great. That contrast works thematically. But when they are made to be the two halves of a novel, they don’t balance out. When they finally face each other, the strong character eclipses the weaker one and makes him obsolete. This happens at the end of the novel, so after five hundred pages of buildup, it’s anti-climactic.
That being said, the style of the writing is timeless, the poetry of the language is beautiful, and the word choice is spare yet powerful. The tropes and images have been used before, but are given a refreshing new life. The flash-forwards create suspense, but again the denouement is underwhelming. This may be on purpose, in order to highlight the non-victory of all wars.
The MacGuffin ends up being useless. Also, one of the two main characters contracts a virus, wanders into a minefield in a haze, and gets blown up. Perhaps this gives the reader a more accurate impression of the true nature and reality of war, but it isn’t a very rewarding conclusion.
This book is worth reading for the journey, not the destination.