The People in the Photo – Hélène Gestern

Gallic Books

Translated by Emily Boyce and Ros Schwartz

Publication date – 17 February 2014


“Parisian archivist Hélène knows very little about her mother, Nathalie, who died when she was four. In the hope of learning more, she places a newspaper advert calling for information on Nathalie and two unknown men pictured with her at a tennis tournament in 1971.   Against the odds, she receives a response from Stéphane, a Swiss biologist: his father is one of the people in the photo.   More letters, and more photos, pass between them, in an attempt to unearth the truth their parents kept from them. But as they piece together events from the past, will they discover more than they can actually deal with?   Winner of seventeen literary awards, this dark yet moving drama, deftly explores the themes of blame and forgiveness, identity and love.”

5 of 5 stars

Hélène, a 38 year old archivist, discovers a picture of her mother, Nathalie, with two unknown men. Nathalie died when Hélène was three years old, leaving her with no memories of her and having grown up with her father and adoptive mother refusing to discuss Nathalie, Hélène has a lot of unanswered questions. Stéphane answers her ad for more information, identifying the two men in the photo, one of them being his father Pierre. Hélène and Stéphane soon start to investigate the story of Nathalie and Pierre discovering more about themselves in the process.

This is a tale of love lost and found, of decisions made and the consequences of them, of betrayal, separation and loss and a tale that is exquisitely told. Quite simply I loved this story.

The story is told in correspondence between Hélène and Stéphane, interspersed with beautiful descriptions of the photographs that pepper the story. Given that this is a tale about photos and no pictures are contained between its pages it is vital that the author is able to describe an image so that the reader can easily visualise it. Luckily Hélène Gestern provides such beautifully vivid prose that you can almost imagine you are viewing an image rather than words on a page.

The use of correspondence is the perfect story telling tool. The story develops at the perfect pace. I found myself eager to read the next letter, email or text.It is easy to get lost in The People in the Photo. I found myself saying ‘just one more letter’ then, ‘oh that was just a short letter, just one more’. Each would add another level to the story of Nathalie and Pierre and also the story of Hélène and Stéphane.

The Nouvel Observateur are quoted as saying ‘Just right’ on the front of my copy of the novel. And indeed it is. If Goldilocks was looking for a book, this would be the one that was ‘just right’.  From opening the first page the book drew me in and I found myself closing it with the thought that this was a beautifully told piece of literature, accompanied with that rueful kind of feeling the comes with the end of a good book.

A beautiful piece of literature that I would recommend in a heartbeat. Très magnifique.

3 Comments Add yours

  1. Gosh that was quick! You must have loved it! I have rarely seen you give a book 5 stars – this bodes well for me 🙂


    1. janetemson says:

      It’s rare I give 5 stars, a book needs to have that certain elusive quality, almost a feeling it has to be differentiated if you know what I mean. I loved this and could have easily read it in a day if I’d had the time 🙂 I think you’ll love it too 🙂


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