The People in the Photo by Helene Gestern: book review

The People in the Photo by Helene Gestern: book review.

The People in the Photo (Eux sur la photo 2011, English edition 2014) is an epistolary fictional novel set in England, France, and Switzerland, from March 2007 to April 2008. The entire narrative is seen through the correspondence (letters and email) between two people.

The original photograph is two men and a woman ‘bathed in sunlight’ in their tennis gear in Interlaken, Switzerland, in the summer of 1971. The woman is the narrator Helene Hivert’s mother Nathalie. Helene is head of the pre-1930 visual artefacts collection works at the Museum of the History of the Postcard in Paris. She is 39 years old and this is the first time she has seen the face of her mother. Her mother died when she was four years old, and her father remarried Sylvia who adopted and raised her. They never mentioned her mother, and now Sylvia has Alzheimer’s and her father has been dead for three years. So she can’t ask them about the photograph she has found.

One of the men in the photo is P. Crusten. The other man is unnamed. Who is he? Where is her father Michel? 

Pierre Crusten’s son, Stephane, a biologist working in England, responds to Helene’s advertisement to find the unnamed man. Pierre says it is Jean Pamiat, now frail, in a retirement home in Lausanne.

Stephane is curious too about his father. What was he doing in the summer of 1971? Together, in a series of correspondences, Helene and Pierre seek to know more about their family – Helene about her mother, and Stephane about his father. She sifts through her father’s photos and books, and he returns to Geneva where his brother Philippe lives, to look through his father’s boxes of photos. Their correspondence to each other brings them closer and closer together.

When two almost identical photographs surface at almost the same time ‘when they had been lying forgotten for forty years in two different places, so far from each other’ they are closer to the truth. Helene discovers ‘the intensity of my father’s hatred or indifference towards my mother.’ She also learns how her mother died.

But it is not until two critical letters emerge that they know the full truth: photographs and a letter of explanation from Sylvia before her death, and a letter from Jean Pamiat. ‘Thirty years of censorship overturned by 110 photos in an album.’

Several of these early black and white family photos mentioned in the story are described in detail – the position of the people, their clothes, their expression, the landscape – but the photographs are not provided. Readers see only what the narrator, Helene, sees.

For people who like epistolary novels, this is a gradual evolution of friendship and truth about family secrets, moving from deception to painful reality. For me, some of the threads were too neatly tied together and the ending too informative and revealing – and too sentimental. But overall, it is a slow-burn detective-type unearthing of clues that clash, then blend in a mixture of revelations and surprises. 

Parts of the Kevin Kline, Kristin Scott Thomas and Maggie Smith movie My Old Lady (2014) set in Paris came to mind as I was reading this novel. The People in the Photo is similar in tone, pace, themes, and narrative, but without the humour.

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