A few years ago my elderly mother sent me a mysterious photograph of her much younger self in the arms of a black man. She said it was important that she passed on the photograph but did not want to tell me the background – she just wanted me to have it. The man was black in that he was burnt black by the sun rather than being African or Caribbean. What was this story? Wouldn’t anyone want to know? I was reminded of Stephen Poliakoff’s Shooting the Past, where a film library was under threat of closure and the staff need to save these images of the past. Our family lost most of their photographs in a house move which perhaps makes me more interested in what old pictures can reveal, or conceal.
The People of the Photo, then, was a must read. Helene, who did not know her mother, finds an old photograph of her with two unknown men. What was the story, who were they? She advertises and is contacted by Stephane who knows part of the background. Both the characters are single, in their late thirties, and it becomes obvious their families were connected, but how? As they live in different countries Helene and Stephan ewrite and email as each finds just a little bit more background, gets closer to the truth. There was a hushed-up affair, and a tragedy, but what really happened? Why are things so secret? And… are they siblings? Difficult, as they are clearly falling in love. The chapters of the book are short, exploratory letters and emails that gradually open up – the two gradually open up to each other as they open up the past.
The first half of the book worked very well for me, the letters and emails both felt like they were from women used to being on their own, being able to open up because they were writing. But wait! Half way through I realised that Stephane was a man. My ignorance of French names made a fool of me. But that was when I began to have doubts about the book – possibly the author could not write letters as a man would write which led to my guessing it was between two women. It was when they admitted their love that the book began to fade for me slightly. But I was pleased to stay with the book and to finally understand what created the dysfunctional families who brought them both up in ignorance of their past.
The translation is superb and I loved those parts of the book set in the one part of Paris I know reasonably well.