First novels: When romance develops from an old photograph

Helene Gestern's People in the Photo deserves all its accolades; Ghost Moth and Land Where I Flee are good, too

22 February 2014

9:00 AM

22 February 2014

9:00 AM

Ghost Moth Michèle Forbes

Weidenfeld, pp.272, £12.99, ISBN: 9780297870449

Land Where I Flee Prajwal Parajuly

Quercus, pp.272, £16.99, ISBN: 9781780872971

The People in the Photo Hélène Gestern

Gallic, pp.208, £8.99, ISBN: 9781908313546

The intensely lyrical Ghost Moth is set in Belfast in 1969, as the Troubles begin and when Katherine, housewife and mother of four, finds herself remembering an old love affair. Michèle Forbes achieves a vivid depiction of family life — the daily squabbles and teasing, the nuances of Katherine’s love for her children through a haze of exhaustion, one daughter’s struggle to be liked by bullying friends and another’s blushingly awkward first crush. Interwoven with these domestic scenes are chapters set 20 years earlier, in which we see the unfurling of Katherine’s haunting romance.

The novel is in part a meditation on differing forms of love, comparing this all-consuming passion, cut unhappily short, to Katherine’s ‘love lived, not imagined’ for her husband, with its ‘sweet pattern of compromise’. Alongside are the startling changes happening in the city: what was an optimistic place with a close-knit community and amateur dramatics is fast becoming a battleground. People used to address each other as ‘Miss’ but now they are ‘fuckin’ Taigs’; a romantic stroll is likely to end with being egged or spat at, and the once moonlit night sky is ablaze with the flare of arson. The ‘ghost moth’ of the title flutters through the novel, alighting on various pages. As Katherine explains to her daughter, ‘Some people believed that ghost moths were the souls of the dead waiting to be caught.’ In this affecting portrait of lost love and a lost city, Forbes catches those souls beautifully.

In The Land Where I Flee, Prajwal Parajuly follows four Nepali-Indian siblings as they return from their adopted homes in America and England to the Himalayan hilltown of their childhood. They have come to celebrate their grandmother’s birthday, which transpires to be a perfect occasion for the playing out of complicated family dynamics. Parajuly’s deft portrayal of his characters’ relationships — both with each other and with their old and new homes — is original and convincing.

Agastaya is a successful oncologist in New York, caught between his family’s pressure to marry a Nepali woman and his American boyfriend’s insistence on meeting his family. Oxford-educated Manasa has married a wealthy Nepali, but has been forced to sacrifice her high-powered job to care for her paraplegic father-in-law. Bhagwati may be happily married, but to a man of a lower caste, which means that her grandmother will barely acknowledge her family’s existence. Finally, there is Ruthwa, the blackest sheep of them all, who began his short-lived writing career with a novel based on sensitive family events.

Just as engaging as this nuanced portrayal of a generation caught between East and West is Parajuly’s sharp depiction of the social and economic problems besetting this little-known part of the world. Illuminating and compelling, The Land Where I Flee is a potent mixture of national and familial politics.

Hélène Gestern’s enchanting The People in the Photo has won 20 literary awards in France. It opens with a description of an old photograph; its subjects — a woman and two men in tennis whites — are ‘frozen forever’. A Parisian archivist (also called Hélène) is aware that the woman is her mother, but knows nothing else about the photograph and very little even about her mother, who died in a car crash when she was a child. Hoping to unfreeze these figures and so uncover her mother’s story, she places an advert and enters into correspondence with Stéphane, a Swiss biologist living in England, whose father is one of the men.

The novel is composed of their letters, emails, occasional postcards and text messages, as Hélène and Stéphane investigate a murky past and unearth some upsetting secrets. As they edge closer to the truth about the relationship between Hélène’s mother and Stéphane’s father, so they grow closer to each other, and while their falling in love might be a little neat, it is hard not to succumb to its charm. The optimism of this new relationship acts as a counterweight to the sadness of the thwarted love affair of the past and the ache of parental loss. In this ultimately uplifting novel, Gestern reassures us that the pain of one generation need not carry over to the next.

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