‘The People in the Photo’ arrived from France garlanded with literary awards. I’m inclined to be a little wary of books like that, books that are often too serious and too modern for my taste, but I fell in love with this particular book. It tells wonderfully moving and though-provoking human story; and it is so very east to read, to become involved, to keep turning the pages because you care about these people and you need to know what happens ….
Hélène didn’t remember her mother, who had died when she was an infant, and no one would ever speak of her. Her father, her step-mother, anyone who might have known her mother drew a careful veil over the past.
But Hélène found a picture, a picture of her mother as a very young woman, at a tennis tournament with two young men she did not recognise at all. Her need to know more was overwhelming, and so she placed an advertisement, asking for more information about the people in the photo.
Stéphane, a Swiss scientist who lived and worked in England, responded. He recognised one of the young men as his father, and that made him realise that he also had unanswered questions about his own history.
Each hoped to learn more from the other, and so they continued to correspond – by letter, by email, by text message. Slowly and steadily they find out more about their parents, their history, and the relationship between them.
They are intelligent, they are articulate, and that illuminates their correspondence. Their words bring Hélène and Stéphane to life, as real, complicated, living, breathing human beings. Two people drawn together by their need for answers about their childhoods and the secrets of the past that their parents have kept from them.
The photographs they found were described so beautifully that I could see the past, could see the people in their photo. That was lovely, and it gave brought those people to life too, and set them apart from the story in the present and the questions being asked about them.
There were photographs from the Swiss mountains, the Brittany coast, and the streets of Paris ….
The plot was intricately and cleverly constructed. Sometimes questions led to answers, and sometimes they would lead to more questions. There were moments of understanding, moments of despair, moments of doubt, moments of hope, before the final pieces fell into place.
I loved that as well as the big picture there were so many little nuances. Little things like a change in salutation, a change in tone, made this correspondence so very real.
At times it was predictable, but sometimes people are predictable.
If I have reservations, it was because I felt that at times the story ran too smoothly. Sometimes answers came too easily, suspense was maintained artificially, there was a little too much good luck …..
But the story held me, because I believed in these people, I cared about them, and I was caught up with their emotional journey and their voyage of discovery from the first page to the last.
(Translated by Emily Boyce and Ros Schwartz)