Hélène Gestern's novel, The People in the Photo (Eux sur la photo), is a shoe-in for my 'best of' reads list for the year. I picked it up to read in honor of Women in Translation Month. This is a first novel by French author Gestern and it is beautifully translated by Emily Boyce and Ros Schwartz, and I have to put in a little plug for the publisher Gallic Books as well. Their tag line is "the best of French in English" and as I am reading another of their titles at the moment (and enjoying it immensely, too), I have to say I concur. It has the added bonus of being written in an epistolary format, which I love, and is a mixture of contemporary drama with a dash of mystery to it and even some romance, but I use these descriptions lightly as it is a weighty story, too. It is a meditation on memory really--a story of families and the lies they tell each other, or rather the truths that they keep hidden for the pain they have caused. There is also a thread of sadness and melancholy that runs through the story as well.
An ad appears in the newspaper Libération in February of 2007. An anonymous Parisian has placed it looking for information on three people, two men and a woman, in a photograph taken in the 1960s in Switzerland. The woman is likely the Parisian's mother, there is a name given for one man, but the other man is a mystery. What is the connection between these people?
"The three figures in the photograph are frozen for ever, two men and a woman bathed in sunlight. All three are dressed in white and holding tennis racquets. The young woman is in the centre; the man on her right--who is quite tall--is leaning towards her as if poised to tell her something; the second man stands on her left at a slight remove, bending his knee and leaning on his racquet in a playful Charlie Chaplin pose. They all look about thirty, but the taller man is possibly a little older. The tree-covered Alpine slopes in the background are partly blotted out by a sports centre, and the snow-capped peaks on the horizon lend the scene an unreal picture-postcard feel."
Hélène Hivert had all but given up any hope of finding someone who might know the people in the photo when Stéphane Crüsten, a Swiss biologist, responds that the unknown man is his father, a friend of the playful 'Charlie Chaplin' leaning on his tennis racquet. Thus begins a correspondence between the two as they piece together the mystery of their parents--how did they meet, what was their relationship and what was their shared secret? Hélène's mother died when she was very young and she was raised by a father who would not speak of her and a stepmother who raised her as her own though complicit in the secret. Now as a middle aged woman she wants to fill in the gap that all but blotted out her mother's life. She has only vague recollections of her mother speaking Russian and hazy memories of what she might have been like.
Stéphane, however, has vivid memories of his own father and mother and is still in contact with his father's friend-the second man in the photo. While he remembers his father well, he was still a solitary man, slightly taciturn and always preferred to spend time in his studio or outdoors as he was an ardent and talented photographer. Beyond that he knows little about his father's past. Hélène and Stéphane begin piecing together the story of their parents' shared past, though not everything they discover is happy or welcome knowledge.
Throughout the story photographs are introduced and described and then letters follow filling in the details of what Hélène and Stéphane know and what they uncover as they delve into the histories of Nathalie and Pierre. Their growing correspondence brings them closer together at the same time as their parent's stories threaten to tear them apart. At first the letters are formal and matter of fact, but over time the two become closer and a natural affection grows out of their joint interest in uncovering their parents' secrets.
Gestern has managed to convey so very much through a series of letters, postcards and emails. Hélène and Stéphane emerge as fully formed characters and even though Nathalie and Pierre are present only in memories and photographs they come across vividly complete with all their shortcomings and failings. Not every story in this novel is a happy one, but Gestern provides a most satisfying ending. This is a literary page-turner and I was riveted to it throughout. I hope Gestern writes more!