The People in the Photo by Helene Gestern

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The People in the Photo by Helene Gestern

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Category: Literary Fiction
Rating: 4.5/5
Reviewer: Scott Kemp
Reviewed by Scott Kemp
Summary: Hélène Gestern's debut novel is a success. Breathing life back into the epistolary genre, The People in the Photo is an elegant investigation into the workings of identity and history.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 265 Date: February 2014
Publisher: Gallic Books
ISBN: 978-1908313546

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Hélène Hivert works at the Museum of the History of the Postcard. It is a job she loves, as she finds delving into other people's lives 'most exciting'. Luckily, she is 'regularly sent collections to catalogue', and each time the 'moment of discovery' gives her a thrill. It may be 'addictive', but 'There is something very moving about the thought that just two or three sources can be enough to build a picture of an entire life'. But what happens when the sources are a bit too close to home, when Hélène must play Holmes among the artefacts of her own family's past, pondering 'the silence of surfaces'? Well, the professional detachment goes straight out the window, and what had been a genuine pleasure, tinged by wonder, now becomes an uncomfortable obsession.

The situation is simple: rummaging among her family's papers, Hélène discovers a newspaper clipping of her long-dead mother, Nathalie Hivert. In this fading photograph, Hivert is flanked by two mysterious men, both of whom are identified. Armed with a date, place, and names, Hélène takes out an ad in 'several French and Swiss newspapers'. But of all the responses she receives, there is only one with cast-iron credentials: Stéphane Crüsten. Having verified that the man in the photo is Stéphane's father (by means of a tennis club ID), she quickly enters into a frank and searching dialogue with her newfound pen pal. Hélène's motivations now become clear: she is an only child, and one whose whole life has been 'surrounded by...silence'. The cause of that silence, she feels, is the spectre of her mother, who died when Hélène was just three. She has nowhere to turn for answers: her father's dead, her adoptive mother's 'suffering from final-stage Alzheimer's', and there are no relatives to 'fill in the gaps'. As such, Hélène needs help to unlock this mystery, and Stéphane is the key.

That is about as far as I can go with the synopsis. To go any further would undermine the convoluted plot. But what I can do - if the reader will humour me - is look into the structure of the book, if only to see how it all fits together.

Hélène Gestern's The People in the Photo is an epistolary novel. Yet what starts out with good old-fashioned letters soon descends into the hideousness of text messaging and email. Nevertheless, there are a number of benefits tied to such an approach, the foremost among them being the immediacy of what we are told. Stripped of an interfering narrator, the novel allows us to navigate the book without someone sitting on our shoulder guiding our responses. (This subtraction of the author makes a nice change, as novelists nowadays seem far too intent on ramming home their erudition or worldviews.) Thankfully, then, Gestern has the confidence to let the letters between Hélène and Stéphane carry the book's momentum. Occasionally, she'll plonk in another character's diary or letter, but the effect is rather clumsy, as the new voice trumpets the arrival of some hugely important information and kills the mounting suspense. Whether this is seen as a major or minor flaw depends on the reader. (Personally, I'm on the fence.)

There is one further element that disrupts the alternate cycle of letters. Each chapter starts with a description of a newly discovered photo, and the lack of a first-person pronoun suggests we are now in the hands of a third-person narrator. The microscopic and impersonal examination supports this view, as someone as involved as Hélène or Stéphane would read far too much into the image. They are, however, wonderfully evocative passages, and once their particulars have been relayed to the reader, the following letters unfurl the tale of their discovery. The repetition of this pattern - constructing narrative around enigmatic photographs - recalls the work of W.G. Sebald, and so it is no surprise when he gets a mention. Yet, unlike Sebald, Gestern doesn't fall into the trap of lugubriousness. In fact, considering the materials she's working with, The People in the Photo has a rather unforeseen and uplifting effect on the reader.

The novel is split into two sections, 'Darkness' and 'Light'. It may not be an overly sophisticated divide (the journey into the light being a bit of a cliché), but Gestern successfully tinkers with the big themes. She somehow manages to give us subtle insights into the workings of history and memory, love and betrayal, war and displacement, without making the novel too cluttered. There is also an air of ambiguity, in which nothing is fixed and everything is open to interpretation. Even when the unpalatable aspects of the past come to the fore, Hélène concludes that 'it's not our place to judge'. Gestern's point, I suppose, is that there can never be an accurate version of historical events, because each person embellishes the retelling in their favour. It is a brave and convincing move. And the fact that we end the novel hoping for an epilogue proves how engaging Gestern's characters have been; we seem to know everything and nothing about these people, and we want to know more, which is rare in a modern novel.

As far as debut novels go, Gestern's is a success. She is able to make history breathe in these pages, and in a way that doesn't lay it on with a trowel. According to the book's blurb, The People in the Photo has won 'fifteen literary awards'; it may not say which ones, but that doesn't matter, because it certainly fits the criteria for the big literary prizes: eloquent prose, innovation, accessibility, thematic diversity, intricate artistry, etc, etc. But will the book do as well now it's open to the English-reading world? It should do. Despite its elegiac qualities, it doesn't wallow, and this is an important distinction to make. It certainly wears its seriousness on its sleeve, but why not? By tackling the universal question of identity, Gestern gathers us all into the intricacies of the past.

If letters are your thing, then why not try out Kurt Vonnegut: Letters by Kurt Vonnegut and Dan Wakefield.

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