The People in the Photo, Paperback

The People in the Photo Paperback

4 out of 5 (4 ratings)

Description

The photograph has fixed the three figures forever, two men and a woman bathed in bright sunshine.

Parisian archivist Helene takes out a newspaper advert calling for information about her mother, who died when she was three, and the two men pictured with her in a photograph taken at a tennis tournament at Interlaken in 1971.

Stephane, a Swiss biologist living in Kent, responds: his father is one of the people in the photo.

More letters and more photos pass between them as they embark on a journey to uncover the truth their parents kept from them.

But will the images and documents from the past fill the silences left by the players?

Winner of fifteen literary awards, this dark yet touching drama deftly explores the themes of blame and forgiveness, identity and love.

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Reviews

Showing 1 - 4 of 4 reviews.

Review by
4.5

"Our families' silence is a poison that infects everything it touches: our dreams, our fears, our entire adult lives. And it leaves us with nothing but questions to fall back on, thirty or forty years down the line."From the blurb, because it's very accurate: Parisian archivist Hélène takes out a newspaper advert seeking information about her mother, who died when she was three, and the two men pictured with her in a photograph taken at a tennis tournament at Interlaken in 1971. Stéphane, a Swiss biologist living in Kent, responds: his father is one of the people in the photo. More letters and more photos pass between them as they embark on a journey to uncover the truth their parents kept from them. But will the images and documents from the past fill the silences left by the players?The author has given the protagonist her own first name - when that happens, I do have to wonder if it is partly autobiographical (although Hélène is a very pretty name!). Hélène is well captured - gentle, curious, reflective, desperate to unearth her truth but loath to upset others. Obviously a sad childhood. I struggled a little more with Stéphane and actually preferred him when he cracked a bit every now and again. The epistolary style, in a sense, permits very limited development of any other characters, but then the whole book is about piecing together people from several decades ago and Nataliya is revealed little by little. Jean Pamiat, the side-lined friend, is actually my favourite character in the whole book, I think. He's deliciously omnipresent, and thankfully still alive in the modern time for our detectives to at least visit.I've said it before - I love the epistolary novel. It permits gentle development of the story (and the sub-story - just the right way to deliver that) without being slow. Had it been told another way I might well have thrown the book aside in frustration with the romance and the clunky delivery of the decades-old mystery - but this method was natural and elegant.For me, the aspect I walk away with is the incredible sadness of the ending. The climax is correctly paced and the puzzle is appropriately concluded, including various characters' odd behaviour, but this tale of love lost, found and lost again is really very sad in the end. Our characters put a brave face on it but... I would not be so sanguine.It made me want to learn Russian! And mourn the lost art of the letter. I greatly enjoyed the adventures of Bourbaki the cat as told by Hélène - and the sub-story, which I cannot reveal for spoiler-avoidance reasons, is sweetly developed in the letters.

Review by
4

Have you ever gone through piles of old photographs and wondered who the people in them are or why the person who kept them did so? When we take a photograph, it tells a story, but that story is lost if no one continues to tell it or to know it. Just as the images themselves fade, so too do the histories behind the photos, if their stories aren't passed along. In Helene Gestern's lovely epistolary novel, The People in the Photo, the important story of a woman's mother is in danger of being lost to time and memory until she finds a photograph and embarks on a quest to uncover her mother's history and that of her own. Helene was raised by her father and stepmother, who never spoke at all about the mother who died when she was just four years old. When she, as an adult, finds a photograph of her mother and two unknown men in an old newspaper clipping, she advertises to see if she can find out any information about the woman who has long been nothing more than a cypher in her life. Helene's father is dead and her stepmother no longer has memories to share so Helene, an archivist by trade, is determined to find out what information she can. A man named Stephane writes back to her identifying not only his father but his godfather as the other two people in the photo. Between Helene and Stephane then, they start to construct a tale that stretches far beyond the photo. As their letters and emails show, they have a flourishing correspondence and a matching keenness to uncover personal history.Their letters show a remarkable gradual opening up and sharing of their current lives as well as their speculations, sometimes confirmed and sometimes refuted, about the past. They start off carefully and guardedly but eventually feel free to divulge the hurts of their pasts, perhaps because of the initial facelessness of their correspondence. The letters also show a growing affinity for each other even as they grapple with apprehensiveness about what they might uncover. In their explorations they flesh out Natasha, called Nathalie, and Peter beyond the flat confines of the original photo and all those photos that follow. The story, written as it is, is a slow unveiling of the truth, beautifully paced, even incorporating realistic gaps of time due to either Helene and Stephane's discomfort with the findings. Uniquely and wonderfully effective in terms of the presentation of the story, each set of letters and emails is interleaved with descriptions of photographs that both illuminate and present more secrets for Helene and Stephane to tease out. Gestern has written an elegant and considered novel, a melancholy and aching tale of one love that cannot be and one that can. In the end, the connection between Helene and Stephane is not surprising although the details are simple and affecting. The novel is moody and atmospheric as they search for their parents' truths and bravely dig past the long silence. This is an incredibly quick read, a fascinating look at love and memory, and the part the past, even the unknown past, plays in our present and our very identity.

Review by
3

A love story based on the reconstruction of past family lives through old photographs and diaries. Competently done with characters nicely drawn and described. But I always think it's a bit of a cheat when authors rely on a structure of exchanges of letters and emails between the two main characters. It is too easy a device and frees them from imagining a more realistic scenario.

Review by
3.5

3.5 After her Father's death, Helene is sorting through his papers when she finds a photograph of her mother at a tennis tournament, with two unknown young men. Knowing very little about her mother except that she died in an accident when Helene was four, she places an advert with the photo in the newspapers. She receives a reply from a young biologist in Switzerland who claims one of the men in the photo is his late father.From there, in a series of letter, e-mails and postcards, Helene and Stéphane attempt to solve the mystery of her mother and the fact that her father would never mention her name, and his father and his depressive, aloof nature. I enjoyed this easy but poignant read. As they unravel clues, letters and at last journals from a friend of both parents and the letter left from her adopted mother after her death, they at last learn the true story. They also form a personal relationship, but will that survive the knowledge they now have on how their parents were connected? Can they forgive what they learn of their parents actions and can they now move forward?

Also by Helene Gestern