The People in the Photo by Hélène Gestern (transl. by Emily Boyce): A beautifully constructed page turner

The People in the PhotoThe People in the Photo seemed an entirely appropriate novel to read after finishing Ben Watt’s reconstruction of his parents’ story. It begins with a description of a photograph from a local Swiss newspaper: three young people – two men and a woman – are bathed in sunlight against an Alpine backdrop, wearing white and holding tennis racquets. One of the men in the 1971 cutting is named as Monsieur P. Crüsten, enough to begin to reconstruct a story if you’re the archivist daughter of the woman in the photograph who died when you were four and whose memory has since been shrouded in silence. Hélène’s newspaper advertisement in Libération elicits a reply from M. Crüsten’s son, Stéphane, who identifies the third man as his godfather. A correspondence begins between these two, now middle-aged but still left with aching gaps in their own stories which need to be filled.

Hélène Gestern’s beautifully constructed novel is a detective story without a detective. She painstakingly leads her readers down a few blind alleys pulling at our heartstrings until Pierre and Nataliya’s stories are finally pieced together while delicately unfolding Stéphane and Hélène’s. Each set of letters, emails and occasional texts is prefaced with a meticulously described photograph, so detailed that you can see it in you mind’s eye, making the characters intensely real. The letters between Hélène and Stéphane are at first formal, then friendly, then flirtatious. The overall effect is to draw you into both stories until you’re desperate to know what happens. To reveal much more would be to ruin it: suffice to say that it has you longing for a happy ending.

This isn’t the first novel I’ve read which begins with a photograph, one way or another. Richard Powers’ Three Farmers on Their Way to a Dance uses as its starting point August Sander’s famous photograph taken just before the outbreak of the First World War and Penelope Lively’s The Photograph begins with a widower discovering a snapshot which will lead him to understand that he knew his wife hardly at all. Then, of course, there’s W. G. Sebald (mentioned in The People in the Photo), much admired by H and many others but not for me, I’m afraid.  It’s a clever framework and I’d love to know of any other novels using a similar premise.

13 thoughts on “The People in the Photo by Hélène Gestern (transl. by Emily Boyce): A beautifully constructed page turner”

  1. I can’t think of any other novels that work this way off the top of my head, but I will give it further thought. I love Penelope Lively’s book and this sounds as though it might be for me as well. But where is the time???????

    1. Indeed! I never seem to reread these days thanks to the never ending temptation of new titles – just not enough time. The Penelope Lively’s one of my favourites, another piece of clever construction.

  2. I like your apt description a detective story without a detective, it is certainly a well thought out and constructed plot with clues unfolding, some revealing, others digressing, yet it does not compromise the letters/epistolary form, which come across as realistic and increasingly compelling. I loved watching the salutations change, becoming more familiar and then retreating a little with certain events and revelations, it was like watching two different currents, one of the head and the other of the heart, the story and the relationships as they move towards each other.

    1. Thank you! I liked the way that you as a reader become a detective, too, picking up on little stylistic changes. Did you read this in translation, Claire? I’d like to know why two translators are credited. Off to read your review now. I’d tweeted before reading it (I knew it would be good!) as I was about to review it myself.

      1. No, I haven’t read the translation, though I recommended it to a French friend and would love to read a book of letters in French. Actually I have the letters of Madame de Sévigné on the shelf to read this year as well. Have you read her?

        In the interview on Winston’s Dad Blog, the author mentions the two translators and speaks a little about the process, it is an interesting question you might be able to pose over there. She also makes some great book recommendations. 🙂

        1. Thanks so much for pointing me at that – I’ll mosey along there now. I’ve not read Madame de Sévigné but will look out for your review. Have you read Les Liaisons Dangereuses in the original?

  3. This sounds like a wonderful book. I loved Penelope Lively’s The Photograph – I thought it was very powerful. I have yet to read the Richard Powers, though I do own a copy of that one. I wish I could think of others but I’m stumped at the moment – I’ll be keen to see what your other readers come up with!

    1. Yes, it’s lovely and all the more admirable for being a first novel. No suggestions so far for other novels in a similar vein but I’m still hopeful.

  4. Pingback: Books of the Year 2014: Part 1 | A Life In Books

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