Book Review: Last Impressions by Joseph Kertes

Last Impressions – Joseph Kertes (Viking Canada, 2020)

I received an Advance Readers’ Copy of this book. All opinions are my own.

My overall impression of Last Impressions (see what I did there?) is that this is a story that has been told before. And so I found myself thinking about why we tell stories, why stories matter, and whether a familiar story has value in being told again and again.

Ben is one of three brothers, the sons of Zoltan Beck. Zoltan is a larger-than-life style character. A terrible driver, a messy eater, an eccentric old man. He’s also a Hungarian Jew who survived a work camp in Hungary during the Second World War. He’s a Canadian immigrant who brought his young family to Toronto and started over. After his wife dies, Zoltan expects to live only six months longer. So when a couple of years have passed he begins to wonder what the point of it all is. As Ben struggles to care for his aging father, he also grows more and more curious about the past that Zoltan never talks about.

Zoltan is really the heart of this novel and, overall, he is an interesting character. In alternating chapters we see him as a young man (known then as Zoli), living in Hungary at the beginning of World War Two, and then as a prisoner in a work camp. Zoli lives in the shadow of his beloved big brother, Bela. What makes the story most interesting is the wide contrast between Zoli and Zoltan; Kertes leaves a lot to the reader to figure out why and how one man can change so much in a lifetime. And while there is a slight mystery to be discovered as to Bela’s ultimate fate – and this ultimately takes Ben and Zoltan back to Hungary – it isn’t any great twist. If anything, the ultimate reveal feels too tidy and not particularly surprising.

Repeatedly through the novel (and, we’re told, throughout their childhood) Zoltan tells his sons and grandchildren not to be too ambitious. To be satisfied with a small amount, not to seek more. Why, he wonders, did his youngest son become an eye surgeon when he could have sold glasses at the mall? The reader is shown Zoli’s life of privilege in Hungary before the war, a life completely taken away by outside forces. We see Zoli return to his family home after the war only to find others living in it. We are told about the life Zoltan and his wife built in Canada and the fact that Zoltan has no interest (apparently) in thinking over what they lost in Hungary.

There’s a lot here that was strong and well-written and yet at the end I felt as if it lacked emotional punch. Part of this was the character of Ben who too much of the story focuses on. Ben is an entirely forgettable character, existing only to act as foil to his father. There are hints that his brothers are more interesting but they are background characters only. Zoltan should have been the main character of his own story.

10 thoughts on “Book Review: Last Impressions by Joseph Kertes”

    1. Yes, it just needed something more. There are so many World War Two novels and it’s important to tell those stories but there wasn’t enough to stand out here.

  1. One thing that I really liked about Jhumpa Lahiri’s novel The Namesake was that at first it read like EVERY other quirky immigrant story. However, when I would see a plot thread taking me in a painfully obvious direction, Lahiri would lead me there and then destroy my expectations. It was too wild. I really enjoyed that novel, and it sounds like Kertes’s book was missing that something that made this story new and worth telling.

  2. I must admit I often wonder if there’s really any more to be said about WW2. I haven’t read this one so I’m not referring to it specifically, but I’ve felt for the last several years that we’ve moved on from trying to make sense of a terrible period to a kind of exploitative wallowing in it. This one doesn’t sound as if it romanticises it though, thankfully…

    1. Sometimes I feel the same way, though I’m hesitant to make a definitive statement because it’s not my story. There are still plenty of survivors and children of survivors attempting to sort out this history and each story is unique. This book also touches on the after effects of the war and communist rule in Hungary (although not as much as I would have liked to see). For me, the romanticizing of it, as you say, doesn’t sit well with me. Whether that’s making war sound so exciting or stories that try and create an uplifting life lesson in a prison camp. This book didn’t do that but it didn’t feel like anything fresh and so left me with that “Why was this book written?” feeling.

  3. Hmmm missed opportunity here. I seem to recall reading about this book a few months back in their catalogue and thinking “meh, I’ve read this before”. That seems like a dismissive attitude as I type this but I can’t help not being excited by certain books…

    1. Yeah, I was hoping this would have the added element of Hungary after the war but there was actually very little of it. A friend of mine’s grandfather escaped Hungary after World War Two and always said that the Russians were worse than the Germans for him (and he was Jewish) but that wasn’t explored here hardly at all.

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