There are times when you read a book that takes your breath away…you sit for hours on end trying to internalize what you have just read…. trying to piece together the storm of emotions as your brain tries to re-direct itself to the more practical and realistic matters at hand, but for all its effort, neither the brain nor your heart can process the catharsis that you have gone through!! It’s an emotional trauma, not necessarily bad, but definitely something you cannot ignore nor can you afford to overlook, because you stay completely stunned and mesmerized by what you have just read.
As usual one may wonder exactly what am I blubbering about?
I am talking about “The People in the Photo” by Hélène Gestern (Translated by Emily Boyce and Ros Schwartz). Now on the face of it, it may not be a book I usually pick up – I mean its French (can’t abide by it!! I love France and its people and its food, but I somehow cannot make up my mind about their literature – I think the tragedies of Madame Bovary and Les Miserables hangs over me!!) its set in present day and as everyone knows I am most comfortable in 19th century and a brief synopsis looked suspiciously of a Kate Morton novel married to a romance chick lit. (I like Kate Morton and like all chicks I do dig into romance once in a while, but somehow put them together and it seems like a Rebecca wanna be!) But the cliché of never judging a book by its cover came absolutely true in this instance.
The book opens with a description of a picture and “the people’ in the picture and this unique start to the narrative is in itself a wonderful beginning. Hélène an archivist is looking for some answers – she wants to know who the two people are in the picture and if they had any information about her mother, the third person in the picture. Hélène’s mother Natasha died when she was very young and was brought up by her father and her step mother Sylvie. Now Sylvie is the last stage of Alzheimer disease and her father has already died couple of years ago. In an effort to understand her roots before it completely slips away, Hélène puts out an advertisement in the paper seeking more information about the other two people in the photograph. Stéphane, a Swiss biologist settled in England responds to the advertisement stating the two men in the picture are known to him – his father and his Godfather. However he has no idea how the two men knew Hélène’s mother! As they begin to communicate more often they delve into the past of Natasha and Pierre and Jean and Sylvia and how they all were connected and how each of their lives were shaped by the actions of the past!
It’s a beautiful work narrated through letters, emails and texts; the only descriptive chapters are the ones a photograph is explained. The details of these photographs are richly drawn and one can practically see those pictures in one’s mind, so vivid are the imagery of the words. The characters are rich and more importantly, they are all human – there is good, bad and ugly and the ability to repent and to forgive, the wide array of emotions that make a human, humane. Most importantly, what could have been a clichéd story, has been very cleverly crafted into a lovely heart searing sometimes tragic and sometimes optimistic tale. This novel is a testimony to the fact that while the stories of mankind are more or less the same, how you choose to tell those stories, proves your worth as a storyteller. Ms. Gestern has definitely proved she is worthy and so much more – an awesome debut!!
A last word of Thanks to Jane; it was her wonderful review of this book that prompted me to read it. Like her I am not particularly very modern in reading tastes, and this book smacked of it!! But her tastes in books are excellent and I have been introduced to many great authors thanks to her. So I plunged in and as always, it was a great experience!!