The French writer Roland Barthes once argued that it is difficult to write convincingly about photographs, particularly those of close friends or family, since our critical thoughts are inseparable from the memories and feelings we have about those people. A photograph, for Barthes, is both a presence, materially and emotionally, and an absence, reflecting a fleeting and disappeared moment.
This is the delicate paradox skilfully brought to life by Hélène Gestern’s debut novel, which describes the personal journey taken by a Parisian archivist, also called Hélène, as she explores the life of her mother who died when she was a baby.
Its starting point is the newspaper advert she takes out as a hopeful request for information with a mysterious photograph of her mother at a 1971 Swiss tennis tournament alongside two unknown men. This ad provokes a response from Stéphane, a Swiss scientist living in Ashford, Kent, who recognises his father, and the pair steadily begin a dialogue that sees them find out more about their parents and the nature of the relationship between them.
The People in the Photo is built around the exchange of letters, emails and text messages between the pair. As their joint quest proceeds, Hélène fills in the blanks that stem from her father’s refusal to talk about her late mother and Stéphane learns about another, darker side to his father.
The exchange sees the pair gradually gain each other’s trust as they share discoveries, speculate about their parents’ secrets, and draw closer themselves. The intimate nature of their private correspondence gives the reader the guilty pleasure, even a lightly voyeuristic thrill, of prying into their private revelations of family truths. As one character cautions, however, “in most cases the truth is crueller than anything you had imagined”, and the subsequent stories of loss are genuinely affecting.
Evocative descriptions of the further photographs Hélène and Stéphane exhume in their investigation act as markers in the story, providing clues about their parents’ shared past in a story that takes in the Swiss mountains, the Brittany coast, and the Russian expatriate community in Paris.
The journey sees the pair uncover the extent to which the old photographs and forgotten memories, or ghosts from the past, can persist and be brought to bear on the present moment, creating the overall impression of absences becoming presences or “shadows becoming flesh”. The “ghosts”, we learn, are very much alive as dormant feelings are reawakened.
The People in the Photo is a tightly-controlled, well-paced and, at times, heart-wrenching read. Aside from her precise and readable prose, accurately translated by Emily Boyce and Ros Schwartz, Gestern’s biggest triumph is perhaps the way, in an age where Facebook and digital cameras are ubiquitous, and images are deleted as quickly as they are taken, she reflects anew about the power of photography and unlocks the hidden pathos and sentimentality that can lie at the heart of the most mundane of holiday snaps.