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.