on 17 February 2014
Knowing nothing about her Mother, who died when she was three, the main character Hélène Hivert turns detective and takes out an advert in a newspaper in an attempt to find some information. Her only link to her Mother is a photograph taken in Interlaken in 1971, but she has no idea who the two men pictured with her are. Until, that is, she is contacted by Stéphane, a Swiss biologist living in Kent and the son of one of the men in the photograph.
A correspondence between the two of them begins, formally by letter at first and then as they grow comfortable with each other they chat and email more frequently and informally. It is obvious that a relationship is growing, but with so many unanswered questions from their ‘shared’ past they must proceed with caution. Her investigation brings as many questions as it gives answers and as every new bit of information is found and shared between them, their lives (past and present) change forever. Many of their family friends and relatives have died or are too old and infirm to be quizzed, but how much do Hélène and Stéphane really want to know? Has Hélène left it too late to find out the truth about her past? Will knowing give her closure and will that bring them together or drive them apart?
This is a very different book to my normal reads, has an intriguing plot and as it is written as a collection of letters and emails is very easy to read. It is engaging and page turning as you are drawn into both the investigation into the past, but also in wanting to find out how their relationship is coping with what is uncovered. I loved how the tones of the correspondence changed throughout the book as their relationship evolves. I will probably read this book again as I’m sure there will be bits I missed first time around.
I was sent a copy of this book to read and review by the publisher.
Hélène Hivert is an archivist in Paris. She places a newspaper advertisement with a photograph, asking for information about the people in it. One of them is her mother, Nathalie, and then there are two men in the photography with her. It was taken in 1971 at a tennis tournament in Interlaken. Hélène's mother died when she was only three years old. She receives a response from Stéphane, informing her that his father Pierre was one of the two men in the photograph. Stéphane is Swiss, a biologist currently living in Kent, England.
After his initial response, further correspondence is undertaken between the two, and they reveal memories and gaps in their pasts to each other, increasingly able to confide in each other. They uncover more about their pasts and those of their parents. But it remains to be seen whether the things they discover will help or hurt them, bring them relief and understanding or pain and sadness; either way, the revelations will affect and change their lives:
'...I'm aware that digging up the past is risky. Who knows what secrets they were trying to protect us from and at what cost?'
Hélène's father disclosed little about her mother, and she was raised by a loving stepmother too. After her father's death she found the photograph of her mother with the two men, and decided to now try and find out more about Nathalie. Some of the pair's relatives have passed away, so they must look harder sometimes if they are to continue the search for the truth that has been hidden in history.
I loved this book. Once I started reading, I was captivated by the story, I cared about the characters and I didn't want to stop reading until I'd finished it. The narrative is told predominantly through the exchanges between Hélène and Stéphane via the content of their letters, emails and text messages. It was incredibly moving to be an observer of their exchanges, reading how their connection to each other developed and evolved as they corresponded, and to notice the similarities in some of the feelings and emotions they had experienced in their lives:
'I too feel that inner emptiness, which you describe so poignantly. And, as I grow older, I find it increasingly hard to bear.'
There is a very understandable need to find answers, to discover their real background, so that they might feel a truer sense of themselves too:
'You told me you found it difficult to come to terms with your background. As for me, I've been plagued by anxiety my whole life. My mind is filled with images I can't explain, scenes of catastrophe and things falling apart. I have rarely been able to shake this sense of anguish, even at what should have been the happiest times of my life.'
This aspect in particular really appealed to me; who doesn't wonder about those parts of their past and their family's past that they know little of, and if this relates to a parent, even more so.
Another part to the narrative, interspered amongst the correspondence, are descriptions of further old photographs; these are uncovered as the story progresses, and each sheds light on another aspect of the past. Each is beautifully described by the author, so that without having them in front of us, it is almost as if we do, and we can picture them in our minds eye.
The People in the Photo is a wonderful, emotional and very moving read, definitely a keeper for me, and a book I'd love to read again. I do like epistolary novels and this form works very well here, brought up to date by the use of email and text. There are themes of love and friendship, identity and memory, confronting and dealing with the past, and finding forgiveness. There's always a sense of intrigue and wonder when we look at old photographs of people and this novel captures this and delivers a great story via this starting point. One of my favourite reads so far this year. Beautifully written and translated, I loved the structure and the way the story was told, so I'd certainly recommend this novel. I hope there will be more novels from this author.
Hélène Gestern's first novel, translated from the French by Emily Boyce and Ros Schwartz may be a book which the reader can quickly identify all the revelations and major events which are likely to happen, but all that demonstrates is that life itself has only so many stories, and that certain obvious `unknowns' in a real world, are likely to have a limited number of solutions. This means that a discerning reader may often be able to predict what happened and what will happen, only because `in reality' shocks are unlikely to be shocks FOR THE READER, But, and here is the point, shocks and surprises may well be in store of the characters within a novel.
Probably most of the major events which may happen to many of us can be statistically predicted, but they are (generally) a shock and surprise when they personally happen to us.
So.......this is a long introduction to say that the unsurprising trajectory of this short novel does not in any way detract from the reading pleasure, because the pleasure lies in the unfolding realisations in the lives of the protagonists. This book is effectively a two-hander, a series of exchanges, by post, by email and by text, between 2 rather diffident, reserved people, each successful in their professional fields, but each held back from full emotional engagement with their fellows, because of childhoods which contained secrecy, discord and unresolved grief, guilt and anger.
Hélène Hivert, a Parisian archivist, with some mystery surrounding her childhood, unearths a newspaper clipping of a photo taken of a woman with two men, in Switzerland, in 1971, identifying the woman and one of the men as winners of an amateur tennis tournament, in Interlaken. She believes the woman to be her dead mother, and wishes to trace the identity of the men. She places adverts in French and Swiss newspapers. It is 2007, and both her parents have died
The photo is recognised by a Swiss biologist, Stéphane Crusten, now living in the UK, who identified one of the men as his deceased father, a photographer, and the other man as his father's close friend, now extremely elderly, and unable to communicate through suffering a stroke. Crusten's mother is also dead.
So begins the correspondence, and the two discover they have certain similarities of character, through growing up in separate households where there were clearly `skeletons'.
The book is the slow unearthing of histories, and the discovery of certain connections. It is also the story of a friendship which develops between the two introspective characters, growing up in households where they felt themselves to be unloved or unregarded by their fathers.
Linking the developing realisations are the unearthing of more photos, each with stories to be discovered. The photos are extremely well described, and the reader can clearly imagine them, though of course the fictional book itself contains no photos.
This is not a book to shake or change the world, or anyone's view of the world, but it is one of those pleasingly crafted tales of small, secret lives, which, for the livers of those lives, were full of meaning, and personally important. Exquisite little pieces of ivory, 2 inches wide, don't need to be histrionic and shouted from the hilltops
This book has won some 20 literary awards, and I did not find myself, at any point, saying `Why?'
I noticed the author shared her first name with her female character, and wondered whether this was designed to hint at an autobiographical element, as a writer's device or in fact contained one.
Recommended, for a quiet, gently crafted, satisfying read
on 11 March 2014
I blame this book for keeping me up late each night until I had finished it. Every chapter made me wonder what was coming next! It was beautifully written and the heartache of the characters was so real. It is amazing to know that this is the authors first novel - I do hope that we get many more novels by Helene Gestern
on 21 March 2014
I loved the way the writer brings the charracters together in this book. A very interesting take on a story to use photographs to bring the the charracters alive. In parts historical, a love story and a discovering of ancestry.
I would recomened this book which straddles several counties in its quest to find out who is who.
This is a clever novel (translated from the French) which is told in the form of letters/e-mails. Because of the format, or perhaps the writing style, or both, the writing is slightly detached so that you are very much reading about the puzzle and how it is solved rather than feeling engaged with the characters. I didn't mind this here, in fact I thought that this was a clever story which was elegantly told.
Helene never knew her mother and she makes a plea via a newspaper advertisement for anyone who can give her information about the people in an old photograph she has of her mother with some others. In response Stephane can give her some information but when they combine what they both know it becomes obvious that they are going to have to dig deeper to find out the story behind the photograph and the lives of those featured in it. They do this work by tracing people, or relatives of people, and then obtaining photographs or other documents from them which build up a story.
What they do eventually find out isn't particularly earth shattering but it does cause both of them to reconsider things about their families and the history they thought that they knew. It's a slow revelatory novel with each new piece of evidence leading them forward in their quest. The story obviously requires you to believe that all these photos still exist but once you have accepted that the rest makes perfect sense. The story is set mainly in France and the descriptions of the locations as well as the photos are excellent and really add to the reading experience.
This is not a fast paced book but it is an absorbing one. I really enjoyed following the investigations and watching the new discoveries. This is a poignant and clever novel. I received a free copy from the publishers via NetGalley
I do love books that use the epistolary form to tell a story which is all about pictures from the past. Hélène Hivert is an archivist, as a girl she was bought up by her father and her step-mother, her own having died when she was a young girl. On her father’s death she comes across a photo of Nathalie, her mother, a woman who was rarely mentioned given that any of the young Hélène’s questions were met with silence and stormy reactions. The photo shows her mother in Interlaken in 1971 at a tennis match and stood between two unknown men. Wanting to know more she places an advert in the paper and receives a response from Stéphane who recognises both men, one of whom is his father, Pierre.
From here on the pair compare childhoods and their relationships with their parents and discover parallels but what they want to know is how their respective parents came to be in Interlaken. With the aid of photos, diaries and other documents this is a tale of how they learnt more and what the story behind the photo was. But, this isn’t a plot driven novel, it is one about less than perfect relationships of all different kinds. It is a story of choices and consequences and living with the results.
If you wondered whether this is based on a true story, it wasn’t, despite the protagonist sharing the first name as the author. If there was any doubt, the correspondence between Hélène and Stéphane describes their journey which it could be said is fairly straightforward with discoveries made with relative ease and the pieces of their personal puzzle slotting together in a way that felt a little too smooth to be realistic. The author tries to maintain the tension with delaying tactics that became a little repetitive; it goes without saying that anyone who knew their parents are incapacitated in a variety of ways that stops them revealing what they know. Fair enough the story is set more than forty years ago, but to then add too many instances where the owner of a pertinent piece of information writes to the other to say they can’t read it yet, it’s too emotional, or that they left it behind when making a trip simply didn’t ring true. Those small criticisms don’t detract from what is overall a well-plotted, touching and moving story.
Those of you like me who have far too many books on their shelves may be swayed by the fact that this is a shortish book coming in at only 270 pages which makes it an ideal story to fit into a busy reading schedule,. Its relatively brevity doesn’t short-change the reader, in fact its impact is far greater than some books twice this length with its deceptively light touch examining relationships and giving the reader a cast of characters that won’t easily be forgotten.
I can’t leave this review without praising the work of the two translators; Emily Boyce and Ros Schwartz who were so good that I completely forgot that this book was originally written in French, where incidentally this debut novel won a slew of prizes.
I’d like to say a big thank you to Gallic books for giving me a copy of The People in the Photo, this review is my thank you to them.
on 14 February 2016
I read The People In The Photo in one sitting: it was that much of a page turner. I really wanted to know what happened to Helene, a Parisian archivist, and Stephane, a Swiss biologist living in England, who were trying to find out what the connection between their parents was, as well as the mystery that surrounded the death of Helene's mother when she was a young child.
While Helene was growing up neither her father nor her stepmother would answer questions about her mother and Helene has no memory of her. Now that her father has also died she is determined to find out more about the people in the photograph, her mother with two unidentified men, that she finds hidden in his papers.
After Stephane answers her newspaper advertisement showing the photograph and asking for information they begin a correspondence by letter and email. Stephane recognises one of the men as his father and the other as a close family friend. He agrees to go through his father's archive of photographs to find out more. And so they begin a journey that leads to both the discovery of family secrets as well as new knowledge of themselves.
The story is told in the present and in flashback and flows well. The descriptions of the photographs are excellent and I could imagine the image in front of me just as Helene and Stephane would have seen them.
Although the ending didn't surprise me it also didn't disappoint.The People In The Photo is beautifully written and translated and I enjoyed it very much. I am not surprised it has won many awards in France.
Many thanks to Netgalley and Gallic Books for the opportunity to read and review this book.
When Hélène’s father dies, she discovers a photo amongst his papers, a photo she has never seen before. It shows her mother, the mother she lost when she was 3, looking young and so happy standing between two men Hélène doesn’t recognise. The only clue is that the photo was taken in Interlaken. So she sends a copy to the local newspaper, hoping that a reader might recognise someone in the picture. She gets a reply from Stéphane, who does indeed know who the men are. One of them is his father.
What follows is the gradual unfolding of a mystery, the discovery of a past that both Hélène and Stéphane have had hidden from them all their lives. Through letters, emails, texts and phone calls, the two embark on a sometimes painful journey to discover the truth about their parents.
This is a charming and gentle novel about memory, acceptance and forgiveness. As the two rummage through their family archives and patiently follow the clues, they are increasingly drawn together, and as the novel progresses so too is the reader drawn into the developing tale.
The epistolary structure works to great effect, making it impossible to break off reading. Each letter or email provokes an answer which compels the reader to discover what is said or discovered next, making the book a real page-turner. When other photographs are discovered they are so vividly described that you can almost see them as if you were looking at them. Descriptions of French bourgeois life at the time Hélène and Stéphane’s parents knew each other is equally vividly evoked, that time when family and societal pressure could sometimes have devastating consequences.
Beautifully and lyrically written, but never sentimental or overly romantic, this is a heart-warming book and Gallic are to be applauded on bringing yet another excellent French novel to an English-speaking audience.
on 7 April 2014
Hélène, a 38 year old archivist, discovers a picture of her mother, Nathalie, with two unknown men. Nathalie died when Hélène was three years old, leaving her with no memories of her and having grown up with her father and adoptive mother refusing to discuss Nathalie, Hélène has a lot of unanswered questions. Stéphane answers her ad for more information, identifying the two men in the photo, one of them being his father Pierre. Hélène and Stéphane soon start to investigate the story of Nathalie and Pierre discovering more about themselves in the process.
This is a tale of love lost and found, of decisions made and the consequences of them, of betrayal, separation and loss and a tale that is exquisitely told. Quite simply I loved this story.
The story is told in correspondence between Hélène and Stéphane, interspersed with beautiful descriptions of the photographs that pepper the story. Given that this is a tale about photos and no pictures are contained between its pages it is vital that the author is able to describe an image so that the reader can easily visualise it. Luckily Hélène Gestern provides such beautifully vivid prose that you can almost imagine you are viewing an image rather than words on a page.
The use of correspondence is the perfect story telling tool. The story develops at the perfect pace. I found myself eager to read the next letter, email or text.It is easy to get lost in The People in the Photo. I found myself saying 'just one more letter' then, 'oh that was just a short letter, just one more'. Each would add another level to the story of Nathalie and Pierre and also the story of Hélène and Stéphane.
The Nouvel Observateur are quoted as saying 'Just right' on the front of my copy of the novel. And indeed it is. If Goldilocks was looking for a book, this would be the one that was 'just right'. From opening the first page the book drew me in and I found myself closing it with the thought that this was a beautifully told piece of literature, accompanied with that rueful kind of feeling the comes with the end of a good book.
A beautiful piece of literature that I would recommend in a heartbeat. Très magnifique.