The People in the Photo: Hélène Gestern

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.

19 thoughts on “The People in the Photo: Hélène Gestern

  1. Thanks for reminding me about this book. I had it on an old wishlist which subsequently got lost somewhere along the way, so I shall have to add it to my current one. It’s a book that seems to have garnered universally positive reviews – I don’t think I’ve seen or heard a bad word against it.

  2. I think it was you, Gert, that pointed me in the direction of Jenny Diski after my review of a Doris Lessing novel. In the memoir I’ve just finished Diski is looking/not looking for her mother after they both lose contact, a theme which your review of Gestern’s book reminded me of. Please stop introducing me to new writers of quality — I can’t keep up!

  3. I passed on this one, which may have been a mistake after reading your review, but to be honest, I’m getting a bit tired of the jumpstart format: finding a photograph, a letter, an old journal…

  4. I have French German and Mandarin in my spoken repertoire, but even in French, which I know best, it would take me months to read a children’s book.Would love to read (and speak) Norwegian. I am not speaking here for the Other Gert, who reads with ease in French and Italian, as well as Latin and Ancient Greek.

  5. One of us could do it with ease, the other has recently read that it is quite easy to learn Norwegian if you know German, in fact that it is desirable to learn them at the same time, so I will be occupied with that( or perhaps thinking about that.)

  6. I borrowed ‘The People in the Photo’ and am finding it an absorbing read, so thanks for recommending it. There is a lot off suspense and I am resisting skipping to the end. I can’t really guess what the French prose would sound like – the English is quite plain and unadorned – but am curious to read an excerpt if I can find one online.

    1. Glad you’re enjoying it Dorothy. I too enjoyed the unadorned clarity of the writing. It has won so many literary prizes in France one would have to think it would read well in the original version.

  7. I am just about to read ‘The Lost Mother’ by Anne Summers which I understand is about a lost painting and a mother who is lost in another sense from the above.

    1. Somehow I missed this at the time, although sounds very much my kind of thing. Just did a search and found a wonderful account of the inspiration for this book by Anne Summers in The Age 5th January 2010

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