I do love books that use the epistolary form to tell a story which is all about pictures from the past. Hélène Hivert is an archivist, as a girl she was bought up by her father and her step-mother, her own having died when she was a young girl. On her father’s death she comes across a photo of Nathalie, her mother, a woman who was rarely mentioned given that any of the young Hélène’s questions were met with silence and stormy reactions. The photo shows her mother in Interlaken in 1971 at a tennis match and stood between two unknown men. Wanting to know more she places an advert in the paper and receives a response from Stéphane who recognises both men, one of whom is his father, Pierre.
From here on the pair compare childhoods and their relationships with their parents and discover parallels but what they want to know is how their respective parents came to be in Interlaken. With the aid of photos, diaries and other documents this is a tale of how they learnt more and what the story behind the photo was. But, this isn’t a plot driven novel, it is one about less than perfect relationships of all different kinds. It is a story of choices and consequences and living with the results.
If you wondered whether this is based on a true story, it wasn’t, despite the protagonist sharing the first name as the author. If there was any doubt, the correspondence between Hélène and Stéphane describes their journey which it could be said is fairly straightforward with discoveries made with relative ease and the pieces of their personal puzzle slotting together in a way that felt a little too smooth to be realistic. The author tries to maintain the tension with delaying tactics that became a little repetitive; it goes without saying that anyone who knew their parents are incapacitated in a variety of ways that stops them revealing what they know. Fair enough the story is set more than forty years ago, but to then add too many instances where the owner of a pertinent piece of information writes to the other to say they can’t read it yet, it’s too emotional, or that they left it behind when making a trip simply didn’t ring true. Those small criticisms don’t detract from what is overall a well-plotted, touching and moving story.
Those of you like me who have far too many books on their shelves may be swayed by the fact that this is a shortish book coming in at only 270 pages which makes it an ideal story to fit into a busy reading schedule,. Its relatively brevity doesn’t short-change the reader, in fact its impact is far greater than some books twice this length with its deceptively light touch examining relationships and giving the reader a cast of characters that won’t easily be forgotten.
I can’t leave this review without praising the work of the two translators; Emily Boyce and Ros Schwartz who were so good that I completely forgot that this book was originally written in French, where incidentally this debut novel won a slew of prizes.
I’d like to say a big thank you to Gallic books for giving me a copy of The People in the Photo, this review is my thank you to them.