In Nicholas Delbanco’s What Remains, one of the main characters Karl says,
"There is, the landscape you are given and the landscape that you choose; often it can be the same, and then you do not need to move, but the landscape of the heart is difficult to find… the trick of human relations as well as human happiness, is to know…the heart’s geography."
That is exactly what the Jewish brothers Karl and Gustave do --- after Hitler’s reign over Germany forces them to flee --- first to London and later Karl moves to America --- they try to find the geography that their hearts can find solace in.
They do this in two ways: by finding a physical landscape, and through memories of a life lost forever. They are a rich, cultured, prestigious family and can trace their German roots back three hundred years, but they know that it is not enough to escape Hitler's wrath.
They leave their ancestral home and their society of elegance and privilege for foreign shores.
A few years later, Karl, now 55, his wife, Julia, and their two children, Benjamin and Jacob, visit London. It has been sixteen years since
Karl left England to immigrate to the United States at the urging of his wife, who was convinced that there were the best opportunities for their children. During the visit, Benjamin and Jacob cannot escape the memories of their childhood, lying in the garage, hiding in the darkness, eating chocolates while Hitler relentlessly bombs England, night after night.
One day, Benjamin asks his uncle to drive him to the house where he was born. Gustave, a bad driver and an absentminded man, takes the young man to Number 3 Holne Chase. Benjamin says, ‘it is just as I remembered it, the perfect container of childhood.’
Later, his aunt corrects him by telling him, that he was born in Number 6 -- three doors down.
"Though it seems funny and just a touch sad that history should prove so subject to revision, I’ve become to feel grateful for inexactness: the gift, as it were, of invention."
This is what Delbanco accomplishes in this dream-like book of hazy memories, where the character drift back and forth between their present and past, forgetting details and settings but what remains is the essence – the soul of their memories. At one level, it is the story of all second generation immigrants, striving to seek and find their identify by reconciling their heritage. At another, it is also the heartbreak and conflict of immigrants, who can never go back to their homeland because of its terrible history.
In this book, Delbanco effectively uses flashbacks by three generations of family members to illustrate their mixed feelings and emotions for their legacy and sense of belonging. It’s a compelling work of personal experiences, of wistful yearning, loss and starting anew, as refugees from war torn countries know only too well. And immigrants, as they hold on to their cherished past and deal with the excitement of their new world.