Hélène Gestern: The People in the Photo – Eux sur la photo (2013)

The People in the PhotoEux sur la photo

I came across the novel The People in the PhotoEux sur la photo by French author Hélène Gestern on Danielle’s blog (here) and immediately had to get the French paperback. (I know – book buying ban and all that).

The People in the Photo is an epistolary novel which gave it a charming old-fashioned feel although it’s set in 2007. Hélène has placed an ad in a newspaper asking if anyone knows the names she has found on a photo, showing her late mother in 1971, in a tennis tournament in Switzerland, alongside two men. Hélène never knew her mother who “disappeared” when she was only three years old. Her father and her stepmother only told her that she died in an accident. Hélène’s many questions were never answered. Her father didn’t want his former wife mentioned.

After the death of her father and while she slowly loses her stepmother to Alzheimer, Hélène finds the photo showing her mother and decides to use it to find out more about her. Stéphane writes to her because he’s recognized the name of one of the two men on the photo—it’s his father.

Hélène and Stéphane begin to write to each other regularly. Both want to find out more about their parents. Stéphane, who describes his father as broody and taciturn, just as much as Hélène. Using photos and correspondences, tracking down people, they begin to put together the pieces of the puzzle. A first their interest in solving a mystery guides them, but soon they become friends and there’s even the possibility of love.

The book is as much about how harmful family secrets can be as it is about loss and grief, identity and love, errors of judgement and guilt. It delicately shows that uncovering a secret may have consequences that cannot be undone. You can’t “unknow” something. There are many moments of hesitations in the book – whenever new information is found, photo collections (Stéphane’s father was a photographer), letters and a diary are discovered. Should they read it? What if they are not strong enough to face the truth? And what will it mean for their present lives, their relationship? Some truths might be too hard to bear.

I believe it’s always better to know the truth but one has to be prepared—it can be unpleasant and tragic like in the case of Hélène’s mother and Stéphane’s father. The beginning of the novel is quite sober. The tone is inquisitive and polite but the closer they get to the truth, the more they open up to each other, the more the books gets emotional. The final revelations are made via a letter from Hélène’s stepmother and the diary of a friend of their parents. I expected a sad story but never imagined finding out what happened would move me as much as it did.

While family secrets are a major theme, the power of photos is just as important. Each chapter begins with the description of a photo, leaving out any interpretations at first. Only later, in the following letters, do we learn the background information. This illustrates how misleading photos can be. And that absences are just as telling as what the photo shows.

History is another important theme. Hélène does not only uncover her family’s history but pieces of Russian and French history. And she appeals to Stéphane not to judge their parents as if their story had taken place in our time, but to keep in mind that they were people of another era.

Hélène Gestern has achieved to write a book that is very emotional but never soppy nor melodramatic. The structure is tight, the writing smooth, the themes are complex and the characters feel authentic. It’s entertaining and profound and has the charm of old black and white photos.

The People in the Photo is Hélène Gestern’s first book. She’s already published two more in French, both of which deal with the power of pictures.

I added both covers because the French, while set during the wrong decade (the 40s), captures the spirit of the photo in the novel.

24 thoughts on “Hélène Gestern: The People in the Photo – Eux sur la photo (2013)

  1. This sounds fascinating.

    I tend to like books that go back and try to uncover secrets in the past.

    Is it always better to have knowledge of really bad things? In most cases it is. But I wonder if some things do too much damage and do more harm then good.

    • It is a fascinating premise.
      I firmly believe that secrets come back to haunt us. There may be wrong moments to share them but I think it’s always better if we know. But timing is key. Some secrets can be pretty truamatizing. I used to read and study a lot of psychology, especially systemic approaches and it’s uncanny the ways secrets find to come to light.

  2. This looks like a beautiful novel, Caroline. Makes me think of Patrick Modiano’s ‘Missing Person’ and ‘Glaciers’ by Alexis M. Smith (because it talks about people who collect ephemera – old pictures and things that belonged to other people). I love epistolary novels and this looks like one I would love. Thanks for writing about it. I have discovered one more new, fascinating French author because of you.

    • It is beautiful. Ah, I see why it reminds you of Modiano. It’s not as melancholy, which measn I love Modiano more, but it’s very good. I hope you’ll read it. I’d love to know what you think.
      It didn’t remind me of Glaciers because the writing is so spare. No metaphors or figures of speech.

  3. Beautiful review, Caroline. I’m really glad you reviewed this book. I put it on one of my wishlists last year, but somehow it got lost along the way and I never got around to buying it. The premise sounds great, and I like your commentary on the novel’s themes and tone. Back on the list it goes…

  4. Lovely review – I remember reading about this when it came out and thinking I’d like it, so I’m glad you reminded me!

  5. Old photos are intriguing. I’ve found a couple tucked into used books I’ve bought, and they made me wonder a lot about the stories behind them.

    Family secrets can be so posionous. I’m very good at keeping secrets after having a couple inappropriately dumped on me as a child and having my life turned inside out. I think we need to be very careful with secrets and wait for the right time to reveal them, if ever. I don’t think it’s always the best thing for people to know the truth. Ignorance is sometimes preferable, I think, because knowing secrets and having to keep them is such a burden to carry. I guess this is why most people just can’t keep a secret.

    • I love finding things like that in books. Notes and photos.
      I’ve had secrets dumped on me too and the moments were badly chosen. I think that’s the crucial element. I’ve seen too many poeple act out secrets – they knew nothing about at the time. There’s no denying that learning of a scerte can alter you profoundly.

  6. I’m so glad you read this and enjoyed it, too. I thought it really well done, not soppy as you say and much more serious really than I was expecting, but done with such a deft, light touch that you never feel that the story is too much, too heavy. I love the French cover–fits nicely with the first photo being of a tennis match (or the participants anyway). Lucky you that she has indeed written more books–maybe Gallic Books will translate them soon. Since they both deal with photographs I am very curious to read them!

    Off topic, but I was wondering if you have seen the German film “Phoenix”? I saw it twice this weekend. I liked it so much I had to go see it again. What a great twist and the ending was perfect–won’t give anything away in case you have not yet seen it. The second time–knowing how the story ends, I watched the audience’s reaction–it was a full house almost, and there was this wonderful collective–“oh!” and release of breath! If you haven’t seen it yet–I highly recommend it–it seems to be getting very good reviews here and from other viewers reactions–people like it very much, too!

    • I think the way she writes is so typical of a lot of contemporary French literature. It’s light but not breezy. Deep but not depressing. I really liked it and want to find out how I’ll enjoy her other books. I’m sure, if this is a success, Gallic books will pick up the others.
      I hadn’t heard of Phoenix. It sounds so good, I looked it up. It’s not in the cinema’s here though. But I can get a DVD. Thanks for the recommendation.

  7. This sounds like a very good novel – I will have to look out for it. I love a family secrets novel, but I’ve read few lately that have been well done. This sounds a much better bet.

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