I was sent a preview copy of this book for review a while ago by publishers Gallic Books, and I also read the book a while ago so I thought I’d better write about it before I forget completely!
The debut novel of author Hélène Gestern, The People in the Photo has won fifteen literary prizes in France and the English translation is by Ros Schwartz and Emily Boyce. It is the story of Parisian archivist Hélène, whose mother died when she was three. After finding a photograph of her mother at a tennis tournament with two men, she places a newspaper advert seeking information about any of the people in the photo. Unexpectedly, she receives an answer from Stéphane, a Swiss biologist living in Kent, who has recognised his father in the picture.
More letters and more photos pass between them as they embark on a journey to uncover the truth their parents kept from them. But will the images and documents from the past fill the silences left by the players?
While it took me a little while to get used to the epistolary style, I soon found this a gripping read. At first it seemed too bitty as we flitted from one letter or email to the next, but it wasn’t long before I found this to my advantage – I could easily put the book down when other demands were made on my time and pick up the thread again later. It also makes it quite literally a real page-turner!
The unfolding love story between Hélène and Stéphane is touching, while that of their parents – interrupted, frowned-upon and tragic – soon becomes devastating. There is also enough of a mystery in the quest to unravel the complex affairs of the past to keep the reader hooked until the end. Possibly I should be banned from reading anything even remotely sad at the moment, because I found the ending almost overwhelming. There is hope there too, though, so don’t be put off by my melancholy state at the time of reading!
The translation by Ros Schwartz and Emily Boyce is in keeping with Gallic’s philosophy of “voicing” characters seperately also seen in The President’s Hat. Here, Ros translated Stéphane while Emily worked on Hélène. For more on the process involved, see here. I found it an effective approach, and particularly appreciated the lyrical descriptions of photographs interspersed among the letters.
This was a very easy and enjoyable read, despite the sadness at the heart of the book, and I highly recommend it.