Helene was raised by her father and stepmother, who never spoke at all about the mother who died when she was just four years old. When she, as an adult, finds a photograph of her mother and two unknown men in an old newspaper clipping, she advertises to see if she can find out any information about the woman who has long been nothing more than a cypher in her life. Helene's father is dead and her stepmother no longer has memories to share so Helene, an archivist by trade, is determined to find out what information she can. A man named Stephane writes back to her identifying not only his father but his godfather as the other two people in the photo. Between Helene and Stephane then, they start to construct a tale that stretches far beyond the photo. As their letters and emails show, they have a flourishing correspondence and a matching keenness to uncover personal history.
Their letters show a remarkable gradual opening up and sharing of their current lives as well as their speculations, sometimes confirmed and sometimes refuted, about the past. They start off carefully and guardedly but eventually feel free to divulge the hurts of their pasts, perhaps because of the initial facelessness of their correspondence. The letters also show a growing affinity for each other even as they grapple with apprehensiveness about what they might uncover. In their explorations they flesh out Natasha, called Nathalie, and Peter beyond the flat confines of the original photo and all those photos that follow. The story, written as it is, is a slow unveiling of the truth, beautifully paced, even incorporating realistic gaps of time due to either Helene and Stephane's discomfort with the findings.
Uniquely and wonderfully effective in terms of the presentation of the story, each set of letters and emails is interleaved with descriptions of photographs that both illuminate and present more secrets for Helene and Stephane to tease out. Gestern has written an elegant and considered novel, a melancholy and aching tale of one love that cannot be and one that can. In the end, the connection between Helene and Stephane is not surprising although the details are simple and affecting. The novel is moody and atmospheric as they search for their parents' truths and bravely dig past the long silence. This is an incredibly quick read, a fascinating look at love and memory, and the part the past, even the unknown past, plays in our present and our very identity.
Thanks to the publisher for sending me a copy of this book to review.