Unsurprising but satisfying unearthing of family secrets
Hélène Gestern’s first novel, translated from the French by Emily Boyce and Ros Schwartz may be a book within which the reader can quickly identify all the revelations and major events which are likely to happen, but all that demonstrates is that life itself has only so many stories, and that certain obvious ‘unknowns’ in a real world, are likely to have a limited number of solutions. This means that a discerning reader may often be able to predict what happened and what will happen, only because ‘in reality’ shocks are unlikely to be shocks FOR THE READER, But, and here is the point, shocks and surprises may well be in store for the characters within a novel.
Probably most of the major events which may happen to many of us can be statistically predicted, but they are (generally) a shock and surprise when they personally happen to us.
So…….this is a long introduction to say that the unsurprising trajectory of this short novel does not in any way detract from the reading pleasure, because the pleasure lies in the unfolding realisations in the lives of the protagonists. This book is effectively a two-hander, a series of exchanges, by post, by email and by text, between 2 rather diffident, reserved people, each successful in their professional fields, but each held back from full emotional engagement with their fellows, because of childhoods which contained secrecy, discord and unresolved grief, guilt and anger.
Hélène Hivert, a Parisian archivist, with some mystery surrounding her childhood, unearths a newspaper clipping of a photo taken of a woman with two men, in Switzerland, in 1971, identifying the woman and one of the men as winners of an amateur tennis tournament, in Interlaken. She believes the woman to be her dead mother, and wishes to trace the identity of the men. She places adverts in French and Swiss newspapers. It is 2007, and both her parents have died
The photo is recognised by a Swiss biologist, Stéphane Crusten, now living in the UK, who identified one of the men as his deceased father, a photographer, and the other man as his father’s close friend, now extremely frail and elderly, and unable now to communicate easily, as the result of a stroke. Crusten’s mother is also dead
So begins the correspondence, and the two discover they have certain similarities of character, through growing up in separate households where there were clearly ‘skeletons’.
The book is the slow unearthing of histories, and the discovery of certain connections. It is also the story of a friendship which develops between the two introspective characters, growing up in households where they felt themselves to be unloved or unregarded by their fathers.
Linking the developing realisations are the unearthing of more photos, each with stories to be discovered. The photos are extremely well described, and the reader can clearly imagine them, though of course the fictional book itself contains no photos.
This is not a book to shake or change the world, or anyone’s view of the world, but it is one of those pleasingly crafted tales of small, secret lives, which, for the livers of those lives, were full of meaning, and personally important. Exquisite little pieces of ivory, 2 inches wide, don’t need to be histrionic and shouted from the hilltops
This book has won some 20 literary awards, and I did not find myself, at any point, saying ‘Why?’
I noticed the author shared her first name with her female character, and wondered whether this was designed to hint at an autobiographical element, as a writer’s device or in fact contained one.
Recommended, for a quiet, gently crafted, satisfying read