August is Women in Translation Month and although I hadn’t made any formal plans to take part, I found myself reading a translated novel by a woman this month anyway – one I’d been interested in reading for a while. Hélène Gestern’s The People in the Photo was originally published in French in 2011; this Gallic Books edition is an English translation by Emily Boyce and Ros Schwartz.
Hélène Hivert lives in Paris, where she works as an archivist. She has never known her mother, who died when Hélène was very young, and for some reason her father and stepmother have never wanted to talk about her. When Hélène finds a photograph of Nathalie, her mother, taken at a tennis tournament in Interlaken in 1971, she’s intrigued. There are two men in the photograph whom she can’t identify, so she places a newpaper advertisement asking if anyone can provide more details.
Stéphane Crusten, a Swiss biologist living in England, responds. One of the men in the photo is his father, Pierre, who is now dead, and he recognises the other as a close friend of his father’s. What Stéphane doesn’t know is why Hélène’s mother is in the picture with them. Corresponding at first through letters and emails and later by telephone and in person, the two begin to piece together the fragments of information they have in an attempt to discover the connection between their parents. Gradually, as they delve into their family histories and more old photographs come to light, the true story of Nathalie and Pierre is revealed.
The People in the Photo is a beautiful, moving novel. The story is told in epistolary form, through the letters and emails Hélène and Stéphane send to each other, and it was nice to watch two people being drawn together in this way, forming a bond in writing before they had even had the chance to meet. The photos they discover are not included in the book, but they are described in such careful detail that I could picture them quite clearly in my mind, and I liked that aspect of the novel too.
However, this was not a perfect book; it did have a few flaws which stopped me from loving it as much as I’d hoped to. First, I thought it was very predictable – maybe not for Hélène and Stéphane, who were genuinely shocked by each revelation, but definitely predictable for the reader. This in itself wouldn’t have been a big problem, but I also found the plot very contrived and too reliant on coincidences, on photographs which turned up just when another clue was needed and on circumstances which conveniently prevented secrets from being revealed until after the next letter was received.
In the end, though, none of this mattered too much. It’s still a lovely, emotional story and once I started reading it I didn’t want to stop until I reached the final page and had learned all the secrets of the people in the photo.