I came across the novel The People in the Photo – Eux 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.