Title: ‘The People in the Photo’
Author: Hélène Gestern (translated from French by Emily Boyce & Ros Schwartz)
Publisher: Gallic Books
Publication date: February 2014
Paperback: 265 pages
Why did I choose to read this book?: I was sent a copy by the lovely people at Gallic & Belgravia books. The style of the story intrigued me as I’m not usually one for a diary/letter format as I find them quite bitty but since Le Nouvel Observateur stated it was ‘Just Right’ I couldn’t help but give it a go.
Where to read? A cosy warm coffee shop where you would feel comfortable writing and reading a letter, this website is ideal to find one in your part of the world. I chose Prufrock Cafe serving the best coffee in London (in my opinion).
Refreshments There isn’t much in the way of eating or drinking in amongst the letter writing, however, being based in France & Geneva amonst other places sweet treats come to mind. Along with a strong cup of mud I embraced a couple of Crêpes, sugar and lemon nice and simple and above all delicious.
Hélène Hivert’s childhood in shrouded in mystery and secrets. In a determined effort to discover the truth of her family she puts and advert in a newspaper detailing her quest and including a photo. The photo is an old back and white of her mother and two men at a tennis tournament taken at Interlaken in 1971, and comes to the attention of Stéphane, a Swiss biologist currently working in Ashford, Kent. He has a clue to Hélène’s past, one of the men is his father and the other is his father’s best-friend. By responding to Hélène’s request for information Stéphane instigates a flurry of written correspondence, via letter, email and text between the two of them. Cataloguing their independent discoveries as they delve into their parents history and sharing their quest to uncover the truths kept secret from them for their entire lives they reveal painful memories and develop a bond that will last a lifetime.
The style of this novel is in a word beautiful. It works as a dual narrative as we follow the correspondence between Hélène and Stéphane. It’s both the journey of discovery into their parents’ past and the truth of their childhood but also the progression of their friendship leading irreversibly to companionship. This style of narrative results in the reader getting caught up immediately in the lives of the character and creates a book that is unputdownable. In addition in amongst the pages of letters and emails we are given the odd exert describing another photo or document from the time period, this enables you to form an even more detailed picture of the characters.
The relationships created by Gestern are hugely enjoyable and admirable in their strength. The history of Stéphane’s father and Hélène’s mother in parallel with the developing one between them themselves is captivating and thanks to the first person penmanship the reader is caught between the pages immediately. My favourite line from the entire books sums this up beautifully, ‘love, once born, whatever the fate reserved for it, is irreversible.’ This poetic style is something I love about French literature and one that Gestern makes use of without becoming overly saccharine or stylized.
The denouement of the story gathers paces to the end of the novel with the emergence of letters and diaries getting translated revealing dark secrets. I had a real emotional response to some of the revelations ‘this time all the efforts of silver nitrate, gelatin, developers and paper are useless… that woman was already gone.’ This story doesn’t shy away from unpleasantness and real to the bone drama, pulling on the heartstrings of even the most cynical of reader.
This is in reality a love story but one that delves deeper than your regular cuddly toy happy ending novel – read it now!
Rating: 9 out of 10