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Fiction World War Ii

Last Impressions

by (author) Joseph Kertes

Penguin Group Canada
Initial publish date
Mar 2020
World War II, Jewish, Family Life
  • Paperback / softback

    Publish Date
    Mar 2020
    List Price

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Shortlisted for the 2021 Leacock Medal for Humour
Longlisted for the 2020 Toronto Book Awards

How can you say goodbye forever when you've left an important secret unspoken?

"I'll tell you what I'm going to do," Zoltan said. "When I die, I'll leave my luck to you."

Zoltan Beck is dying. His devoted but long-suffering sons, Ben and Frank, are trying to prepare themselves and their families for Zoltan's eventual departure...but they can't quite bring themselves to believe that the end is really at hand, and neither can Zoltan himself. The head of a family marked by war and tragedy for decades, he "can't stand to be in a room with a miserable person" and has done his best to keep the pain of his refugee past from his beloved children. But as he faces the end of his life, he discovers a heartbreaking secret from the War that will ultimately bring the family together--or irrevocably disrupt it. Set in both mid-20th century Hungary and contemporary Toronto, this is a deeply moving novel that revels in the energy of its extraordinary characters. It is the story of lost love and newfound connections, of a father and his sons desperately reaching out to bridge an ever-widening gap...even as their time together ebbs away.

About the author

Joseph Kertes founded Humber College's Creative Writing and Comedy Programs. He was until recently Humber's Dean of Creative and Performing Arts and is a recipient of numerous awards for teaching and innovation. His first novel, Winter Tulips, won the Stephen Leacock Award for Humour. Boardwalk, his second novel, and two children's books, The Gift and The Red Corduroy Shirt, met with critical acclaim. His novel, Gratitude, won a Canadian National Jewish Book Award and the U.S. National Jewish Book Award for Fiction. His latest novel, The Afterlife of Stars, has been described by Miriam Toews as his "masterpiece" and was named a notable book by the NY Times Book Review. Kertes is the 2017 recipient of the Harbourfront Festival Prize.

Joseph Kertes' profile page


  • Short-listed, Stephen Leacock Memorial Medal for Humour
  • Long-listed, Toronto Book Award

Excerpt: Last Impressions (by (author) Joseph Kertes)

Chapter 3
On a day not long after the Second World War had erupted, the world of Bela Beck and his younger brother, Zoltan—or Zoli, as he was then called—turned, and it would not turn back. At dawn, the boys had gone for their daily swim at the Palladium, one of the only places in Budapest with an Olympic-sized pool. Bela had made the national team, and now he was determined to make the Hungarian Olympic team. His younger brother was a first-rate swimmer too but, where competition was concerned, could only cheer Bela on from the sidelines and was glad to do so.
The two boys were in the dressing room with a few of Bela’s teammates, including Bela’s good friend Imre Horvath. Imre had snatched Bela’s towel away from him and was about to snap it at Bela to get a rise out of him. Zoli was doubled over with laughter. Bela, naked, tried to get the towel back from Imre, but Imre laughed too and held it behind him.
Zoli left to use the toilet, and when he returned, the coach was there. He didn’t usually arrive until later, when the boys had warmed up in the pool. He was telling Bela it might not be a good idea to practice today. Bela smirked and Imre giggled some more, but the coach wasn’t joking. “I’m sorry,” the man said.
“No need to be sorry,” Zoli said boldly. He was just pulling up his bathing suit. “We can manage without you today.” He took his stopwatch from his satchel. “We’re all prepared—see?”
The coach had not budged. He had not even turned toward Zoli.
“What do you mean?” Bela asked. “What are you sorry about?”
An officer entered behind the coach. He was dressed in the black uniform of the new special police. Imre got to his feet beside Bela. He offered his friend his towel back, but the officer slapped it to the floor before Bela could take it. Zoli ran to pick it up, but the officer raised his arm to bar him. The man looked Bela up and down. “Out,” he told him.
“What do you mean?” said Bela. He glanced at the coach, who looked away.
“Out,” the officer said.
Zoli began to dress again, punching his way through the damp sleeve of his shirt.
“What are you talking about?” Imre said. He stood in the man’s face, but the officer pulled the towel off Imre’s waist and looked at him too. Then the officer put his hand hard on Imre’s shoulder and sat him down again. “You have one minute,” the man said to Bela. “Don’t come back.” He pointed at Zoli. “And take him with you.”
“Don’t come back at all, or today only?” Imre asked, and the officer slapped him hard with the back of his hand and he almost fell off the bench. Zoli rushed at the officer and took a hard slap too. It made his lip bleed.
Bela scrambled to get his things. He trembled with rage. He helped his brother out the door and was gone, not once turning back. The two marched straight over to the Ferenc Liszt Academy, making quick work of the long walk across town. They hardly said a word to each other. They knew what this was about. Their father had told them these days were coming. He knew before most. Yet here they were. How could they have prepared?
When they arrived, another black shirt stood in front of the door. Bela’s first thought, strangely, was how quickly they had manufactured these uniforms. Was it during the friendly conversations between Horthy and Hitler, or was it even before? The Hungarians had once again sided with Germany, as they had in the First World War.
“What do you think?” Zoli whispered. “We could take him, the two of us. We could punch him senseless.”
“Are you crazy, Zoli? This is a music academy.”
The guard at the door had a softer look on his face than the man at the pool. He seemed younger, possibly Bela’s age.
Bela and Zoli stepped forward. “Excuse me,” Bela said. He had a key in his hand.
“What do you want here?” the guard asked in a boy’s voice.
“I practice music here,” Bela said. “This is my brother. I teach music here. I have a student this morning. I know it’s early—”
“Not today,” the guard said.
“Yes, today. I’ll show you my schedule.”
“You won’t be having students today.”
“Then I’ll just practice for a short time.”
“Not here,” the man-boy said. “Not today.”
Zoli was breathing hard, panting. Bela looked the guard in the eyes, and the guard looked away, then down, but he stood his ground. How did he even know who Bela was? Had he been warned to expect him? Bela wanted to take his brother and back up. He wanted to wait on the other side of the street, stare at the guard, make him squirm a bit, see if he turned others away. But then what? Was Bela going to call the police? Was he going to storm the building with his brother? Bela filled his lungs with blue Danube air, and Zoli followed suit, waiting for his brother’s lead. But Bela took his brother by the shoulder and turned toward home.
When they got there, Bela pushed through the door into the foyer. He took his mother’s face in his hands and kissed her on each cheek. The housekeeper, Vera, was right behind her, but she sensed something and withdrew. “No swimming today,” Bela told his mother quietly, “and no music.”

Editorial Reviews

Shortlisted for the 2021 Leacock Medal for Humour
Longlisted for the 2020 Toronto Book Awards

Praise for Last Impressions:
"The great achievement of this novel is that the comedy of the present day story is deepened and darkened by the vein of history flowing beneath it, a history of lost loves and lost lives. Last Impressions will make you laugh out loud and cry out loud. What more could be asked of a book?"
—Miriam Toews, award-winning author of Women Talking, A Complicated Kindness, and All My Puny Sorrows
"Joe Kertes knows of what he writes, and it shines through pristine prose on every page of this moving and thoughtful novel. By turns hilarious and heartbreaking, the story’s vivid and memorable characters wrestle with history, secrets, and shadows that simultaneously strain and sustain a family. Brilliant and masterful."
—Terry Fallis, two-time winner of the Stephen Leacock Medal for Humour
"The patriarch Zoltan looms off the page, larger than life and yet heart-breakingly human. Last Impressions is a testament to the ordinary miracle of family and friendship, of loves lost and loves gained, of secrets concealed and hopes restored, set against the sweep of history, at once epic and intimate."
—Giller Prize-winning author Will Ferguson
"I finished Joe Kertes’s dark comedy, Last Impressions, and booked a trip to Hungary, so vivid and engrossing is Mr. Kertes’s creation of the Beck Family and their visit back to their father’s past. Cantankerous, unwavering, iron-willed, preposterously hilarious, Zoltan Beck is a protagonist for the ages. Stop streaming and start binging on this unputdownable book."
—Andrea Martin, award-winning actor

"A funny and moving book about a family mystery and the mysteries of family."
—David Bezmozgis, award-winning author of Immigrant City and The Betrayers

"Zoltan’s hilarious and heartbreaking story is a satisfying blend of matters domestic and historical."
Publishers Weekly

"Kertes is successfully navigating treacherous waters here with a novel that, for all its moments of darkness, emerges as passionately life-affirming and at times unrepentantly hilarious."

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