Hélène Gestern, The People in the Photo (London, Gallic Books, 2014), 240pp.
Gestern's novel, translated from the French by Emaily Boyce and Ros Schwartz, is a story about forgiveness, family secrets, old loves, and the archaeology of memory. It describes the personal journey taken by Hélène, a Parisian archivist, when she attempts to uncover the life and secrets of her mother, who died when Hélène was only four years old. The novel begins when Hélène puts out a newspaper advertisement, requesting information about a mysterious photograph of her mother, taken alongside two unknown men at a 1971 tennis tournament. The ad provokes a response from Stéphane, a scientist from Kent, who recognizes his father in the photograph. Drawn together by a mutual desire to know the truth about their parents, Hélène and Stéphane begin the exchange of letters, emails, and text messages that forms the core of Gestern's novel.
Interspersed throughout this correspondence are rich, evocative descriptions of the photographs Hélène and Stéphane exhume as they investigate their parents' mysterious connection. These act as markers in the story, providing clues about the past while also taking readers on a tour through the Swiss mountains, the Brittany Coast, and the Russian expatriate community in Paris.
As Hélène and Stéphane gradually grow in trust and intimacy, they must face the consequences of drudging up their linked history. Will their relationship survive the ghosts of the past? Can they overcome the pain their parents once caused them? How damaging are family secrets? In well-paced and understated prose, Gestern explores what it means for grown children to judge and/or forgive the errors of their parents, and then move on to forge their own identities and relationships.