In The Afterlife of Stars, Joseph Kertes, dean of Toronto’s Humber College School for Writers, introduces us to nine-year-old narrator Robert Beck. It’s Oct. 24, 1956, and the Hungarian Revolution is under way. In one day, Robert witnesses sniper fire, soldiers hanging from lampposts, and a toppled statue of Stalin. Told through Robert’s astute observations, the book documents the following days and weeks as the Beck family, along with other Hungarian Jews, make their escape westward. The Becks’ plan is to end up in Canada, but along the way they find themselves in an Austrian convent, and later hole up in Paris with Robert’s great aunt, Hermina.
Kertes covers a lot of ground – both physical and metaphorical – but his primary focus is on the relationship between Robert and his spirited 13-year-old brother, Attila. Together the boys question the universe, God, and the purpose and function of creation. The world, they think, was “created with holy tongue in cheek.” The boys’ uninhibited curiosity, long-winded at times, also allows them to uncover a family secret that gives the novel a gentle but
The writing is moving and skilful, and Kertes creates humorous, sometimes poignant scenes against the backdrop of what is otherwise a dark chapter of European history. (The Beck brothers’ exploration of the Paris sewer system is one of the more memorable parts of the book.) The author’s sharp facility with storytelling and dialogue allows the Becks’ journey to unfold at a rapid pace. Robert is rarely addressed in the way one might expect a young boy to be, which helps show how quickly a child has to grow up in such a precarious environment.
On the surface, The Afterlife of Stars is a story about survival and the senselessness of violence. But beneath this surface lie beautifully captured moments in a boy’s youth. The Beck brothers are fun and engaging, quirky in a way that makes you hope for their success after the story itself comes to an end. Although some sections feel hurried and a bit unresolved, this by no way detracts from the magic this novel achieves.