The 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.