Posted in Book Review, Books I have read

The People in the Photo – Hélène Gestern

Contemporary Fiction 4*s
Contemporary Fiction

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.


A book lover who clearly has issues as obsessed with crime despite leading a respectable life

25 thoughts on “The People in the Photo – Hélène Gestern

  1. This one really does sound good Cleo. Like you, I’m not generally one for stories where things fit together, as you put it, just a little too smoothly. Still, it sounds like an interesting focus on character. And I do like those past/present connections.


    1. Fortunately there was enough else to admire that this slight flaw was forgivable this time – as always the effect the past has on the present was the original pull but there was plenty more to enjoy too.


  2. I love looking at old photos and trying to figure out the relationships between the people in them…this is the kind of story that would intrigue me. I also like the “shortish” aspect, too, which comes in handy when you have a stack of books to read. Thanks!


    1. I am trying to intersperse the longer reads with shorter ones at the moment as there just aren’t enough hours in the week! It is a great premise as I think we’ve all wondered about people in photos.


  3. I’ll try and read it in both languages, I love when translations are so good you can forget it is not in the original language. Also, it makes me happy to see the translators’ work praised as I am considering a Master in translation at uni.


    1. Wow a Master’s in translation sounds like an interesting potential career path – it is difficult reading translated fiction if you don’t enjoy the book as I’m never quite sure if it is the translator or the book – no doubts in this one at all though!


  4. You’re review just made this book a new addition to my TBR. Do you know if it’s possible to get it in French without having to pay for international shipping?


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