Book Reviews

‘The best moments in reading are when you come across something - a thought, a feeling, a way of looking at things - which you had thought special and particular to you. And now, here it is, set down by someone else, a person you have never met, someone even who is long dead. And it is as if a hand has come out, and taken yours.’ Alan Bennett

“Many a book is like a key to unknown chambers within the castle of one’s own self.” ― Franz Kafka

Thursday, 5 June 2014

The People in the Photo - Hélène Gestern

'Sometimes I wonder what 'truth' it is we're chasing after exactly, and what kind of state it will leave us in if we find it.'

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.

I was kindly sent a review copy of this novel - this is my honest review.

Published by Gallic Books | twitter @gallicbooks
Translated from the French by Emily Boyce and Ros Schwartz


  1. Great commentary on this one Lindsey.

    You wrote,

    "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."

    I also like epistolary novels.

    I was thinking the same thing as I was reading the above. Such a fascination for obscurities of the past make this kind of book oh so fascinating.

    1. Thank you so much for taking the time to comment Brian, I appreciate it. I loved the letter format in this novel it worked really well.

  2. Great review as always Lindsay. Intrigued by the book on the whole, I am however slightly put off as I don't generally fare well with stories that feature a correspondence element.

    1. Thank you so much for your kind comment Tracy, much appreciated. This is the basis of this one but it is very well done.

  3. A great review, Lindsay. I love the way you've described the premise of the story and how the connection between the two characters develops and evolves.

    1. Thanks very much for taking the time to comment Jacqui and for your kind words. It's a lovely story.


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