Tag Archives: Hélène Gestern

Books of the Year 2014: Part 1

It’s that time of the year again – best of this and that all over the place. When I did this last year I’d only been blogging for a few months and, foolishly, thought I’d restrict myself to a top six. It didn’t work and the so-called six spilled over into just under twenty so this year I’m spreading things out a bit starting at the beginning of my reading year which got off to a stonking start.

Paperback cover imageBy January 8th I’d already got one very fine read notched up: Michèle Forbes’ exquisitely written debut, Ghost Moth. Set in Northern Ireland, it opens in 1969 and is the story of a marriage told in alternating narratives, twenty years apart. The following week it was Fiona Macfarlane’s first novel, The Night Guest, which opens dramatically with a tiger stalking the Australian beachside house where Ruth lives. Ruth as we soon realise, is demented – a theme which seemed hard to avoid in 2014’s fiction but with its subtle incremental use of suspense McFarlane’s novel stands out for me as one of the better ways of exploring it, and clearly the Guardian First Book Award judges agreed. Unsurprisingly given its centenary year, the First World War provided the backdrop for a plethora of novels from which Helen Dunmore’s The Lie stood out for me. Dunmore, as regular readers may have noticed given that I regularly bang on about her, is one of my favourite writers, sadly underrated. Still in January, Katherine Grant’s Sedition was a treat: a bawdy, rollicking tale, set in 1794 about the subversion of male authority. It’s a hugely enjoyable novel, liberally laced with a ribald, salacious wit underpinned with sufficient sobriety to save it from caricature.

Four picks already, and I’ve only just reached February – a short month and not usually aCover image very exciting one in the publishing schedules or the UK winter, come to that. Louise Levine’s The Following Girls cheered me up with its pitch-perfect satire on adolescent schoolgirl life in the 1970s, replete with period detail and smartarse one-liners but with a nicely honed dark edge. Hélène Gestern’s beautifully constructed The People in the Photo also took me back to the ‘70s with its newspaper cutting from which two people try to trace their history. In this detective story without a detective, Gestern painstakingly leads her readers down a few blind alleys pulling at our heartstrings until Pierre and Nataliya’s stories are pieced together. Finally, at least for this post, but still in February the wonderfully imaginative Helen Oyeyemi gave us Boy, Snow, Bird, a fabulous tale of race and identity with a twist towards the end which will knock your socks off.

That’s my first seven picks of 2014. I’ve come up with twenty-one in all so two more posts in the offing, although it’s only early December: still time for additions.

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.Three Farmers on Their Way to a Dance 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.