Hélène Gestern’s novel is a testament to the power of the photograph.
Her epigraph is from Annie Ernaux: All images will disappear
This gives an urgency to the work of the woman in her story, also called Hélène,who works as an archivist, collating histories from large collections of letters and photos donated to the museum where she works.
Who more likely then, to begin the search for her lost mother with an old photograph showing her with two men at a 1971 Swiss tennis tournament.The first two pages of her book describe this picture, beginning,
The three figures in the photograph are frozen for ever, two men and a woman bathed in sunlight.
Her mother had disappeared from her life when she was very young, and her father and stepmother, although kind and loving, refuse to reveal any information about her.
After her father’s death she finds this photograph and her journey begins.
She places advertisements in several French and Swiss newspapers and the only valid seeming reply comes in a letter from Stephane Crusten. And so begin the letters, emails and texts and that gradually reveal the story of her mother’s life and that of Stephane’s father.Along with this we have detailed descriptions of the photos that Hélène finds.
The passport-sized photo, which the scissors have not cut quite square, is affixed to the pink card by two brass eyelets…the subject wears an unsmiling, almost sullen expression.Her mane of shoulder-length hair is tamed as far as possible by two metal slides at the temple, their gleam picked out by the flash.
These descriptions and Hélène’s interpretations of them form a central part of the story and through them she explores the quality of time and place through details like the light on a wall, the sun shining through branches, or the nuances of changes of expression on the faces of the photographic subjects. We are also drawn in to the developing relationship between Hélène and Stephane through their increasingly intimate emails. I found the character and structure of this first novel most engaging.
Gestern’s prose is elegant and her plotting impeccable. The People in the Photo has won fifteen literary awards in France.
I am already looking out for her next book.
The translation by Emily Boyce and Ros Schwartz is excellent. Another satisfying read from Gallic Books.
One for a quiet afternoon.