The Ash Garden

The Ash Garden

4.1 7
by Dennis Bock

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A scientist stealing across the Pyrenees into Spain, then smuggled into America . . .

A young woman quarantined on a ship wandering the Atlantic, her family stranded in Austria . . .

A girl playing on a riverbank as a solitary airplane appears on the horizon . . .

Lives already in motion, unsettled by war, and about to change beyond…  See more details below


A scientist stealing across the Pyrenees into Spain, then smuggled into America . . .

A young woman quarantined on a ship wandering the Atlantic, her family stranded in Austria . . .

A girl playing on a riverbank as a solitary airplane appears on the horizon . . .

Lives already in motion, unsettled by war, and about to change beyond reckoning—their pasts blurred and their destinies at once defined and distorted by an inconceivable event. For that man was bound for the desert of Los Alamos, the woman unexpectedly en route to a refugee camp, the girl at Ground Zero and that plane the Enola Gay. In August of 1945, in a blinding flash, Hiroshima sees the dawning of the modern age.

With these three people, Dennis Bock transforms a familiar story—the atom bomb as a means to end worldwide slaughter—into something witnessed, as if for the first time, in all its beautiful and terrible power. Destroyer of Worlds. With Anton and Sophie and Emiko, with the complete arc of their histories and hopes, convictions and regrets, The Ash Garden is intricate yet far-reaching: from market streets in Japan to German universities, from New York tenements to, ultimately, a peaceful village in Ontario. Revealed here, as their fates triangulate, are the true costs and implications of a nightmare that has persisted for more than half a century.

In its reserves of passion and wisdom, in its grasp of pain and memory, in its balance of ambition and humanity, this first novel is an astonishing triumph.

Editorial Reviews review
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The characters in Dennis Bock's thoughtful first novel find their lives revolving around the axis of an explosive act -- the dropping of the atomic bomb in 1945, and all of its shocking reverberations, from Japan to New York to a small village in Canada.

Employing the voices of three separate characters -- a scientist en route to Los Alamos, a woman under quarantine on a ship in the Atlantic, and a young Japanese girl watching as a plane slowly draws nearer in the sky -- Bock's tale wields a quiet power that builds steadily as he details the lives of these three characters and the repercussions of one unfathomable act of war.

Each of the characters in this work is scarred, whether physically or psychically, by what they have witnessed. And each of them has a story to tell another, until a perfect triangle is formed between the three.

From the first few riveting pages, Dennis Bock proves himself a literary talent worthy of the attentiveness his novel demands. Poised to stand alongside John Hersey's classic work of nonfiction, Hiroshima, The Ash Garden is a heartrending examination of the all-too-human dilemmas faced by the participants, both willing and unwilling, in a historic event that continues to shape our modern world and attitudes. (Fall 2001 Selection)

Washington Post Book World
Each panel is created with exquisite care, and the three portraits that emerge together illustrate an eloquent truth about the aftermath of war.
Publishers Weekly
No matter how far they travel from Hiroshima, the protagonists of Canadian author Bock's roomy, thoughtful novel are marked by the effects of the atomic bomb. For Emiko Amai, the imprint lingers on her face, in the form of burn scars from the heat of the bomb's detonation in 1945, when she was six. For Anton B?ll, a refugee German scientist who helped build the bomb, the scars are emotional, though he tried to transform his feelings into images in a series of secret films shot among Hiroshima's ruined buildings. For Sophie, Anton's wife herself a half-Jewish refugee from Austria there is the pain of exile, a debilitating illness and the heavy shadow of her husband's guilt. Though Anton claims that the bomb was dropped "to save lives," he remains acutely aware of the human cost, both to its victims and himself: "I know the world requires a certain payment from us... for the freedoms we enjoy. We have all paid." When Emiko confronts Anton in 1995 at a lecture in New York, he surprises himself by agreeing to participate in a documentary she's filming. He invites Emiko to the quiet house he shares with Sophie in Ontario, and as Sophie declines toward death, Anton tells Emiko all the ways he has influenced her life since Hiroshima. In his attempt to obliquely represent the overwhelming horrors of Hiroshima's destruction, Bock (Olympia) has created a group of characters with closely guarded emotional lives. When they reveal themselves, it's in flashes as brilliant as the splitting of the atom. Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information.
This compelling story marries life to death, guilt to innocence, and truth to deception through the entwined lives of two Hiroshima victims over a fifty-year period—Anton, a German scientist who helps invent the bomb, and six-year-old Emiko, whose face and family it destroys. When she is fifteen, Emiko is selected to come to the United States for a series of painful plastic surgeries. There she finds that film is her passion. While composing a documentary about Hiroshima, Emiko discovers that her American benefactor is the scientist who first saw her, her grandfather, and her dying brother in a Japanese hospital. Emiko learns that plastic surgery cannot heal her emotional trauma. Anton discovers that he cannot control the ramifications of the bomb. That Anton marries an Austrian with a Jewish father;Anton's wife dies of lupus, a disease whose pattern mimics the burning radiation sores;and Emiko's grandfather, a doctor, cannot save his own family add additional irony to the story. This historical novel that sometimes discusses war, sex, and love in graphic and pragmatic terms requires readers who understand symbolism and paradox. Emiko will have the most appeal for the teen audience. In 1985, John Hersey added a chapter to the original version of his book Hiroshima (Knopf, 1946) to explain what happened to the six people he interviewed. Bock, in tracing the lives of his characters, parallels some situations and attitudes that Hersey describes. Teens should read Hersey's nonfiction account, which provides the necessary emotional and factual context, before tackling Brock's provocative narrative. Reviewer:Lucy Schall—VOYA, December 2001 (Vol. 24, No. 5)
Library Journal
More than 50 years after the bombing of Hiroshima, that event still resonates as one of the defining moments of the 20th century. This novel explores the consequences of the bomb on the lives of three people who were directly touched by it. Anton Boll, one of the scientists involved with the Manhattan project; his wife, Sophie, the daughter of an Austrian-Jewish violin maker; and Emiko Amai, a documentary filmmaker and one of the bomb's victims. All three are key players in the events leading up to and surrounding the dropping of the bomb. Boll escapes from wartime Europe to contribute a critical piece of information in the bomb's development. Sophie is sent from home aboard the SS St. Louis and ends up in an internment camp outside Quebec City. Emiko, who loses her family and half her face in the bombing, is chosen to come to the States for reconstructive surgery in an act of postwar contrition. From its achingly sad opening to its haunting conclusion, this riveting novel explores the moral ambiguities of war while illuminating a shameful moment in our collective history. Highly recommended.Barbara Love, Kingston Frontenac P.L., Kingston, Ont. Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
An intellectually demanding, yet emotionally affecting, first novel by short-story writer Bock (Olympia, 1999) tackles the large philosophical and ethical questions raised by Hiroshima. The narrative jumps back and forth in time, developing the three main characters' private histories since WWII as they move inexorably toward recognition, and perhaps resolution, of their connected fates. In August 1945, six-year-old Emiko Amai is playing on a riverbank with her younger brother. While he and her parents die, she survives the bombing horribly disfigured. At 16, she is chosen to have reconstructive surgery in America, where she spends her adult life. Her strength remains her ability to endure pain in silence. In 1995, now a filmmaker documenting the aftermath of the bombing, she approaches one of the scientists responsible, Anton Boll. A young physicist in 1940, Boll escaped Germany less for reasons of morality than because he recognized that his science would be better utilized in America. He ends up at Los Alamos and then in Hiroshima itself. There he begins to film what he sees, at first to communicate to his wife Sophie, then increasingly as a private record of the horror he witnesses. But in his self-absorbed pain he loses any sense of Sophie. A refugee from Austria whose family did not survive the Nazis, she finds herself desperately isolated. Like Emiko, she lives within a certain silence and with secret pain. Emiko ends up at Boll's rural home to view Anton's films just as Sophie enters the last stage of lupus. Bock does a lovely job of creating subtle, overlapping images-shadows, scars, elderly men's silhouettes-but his authorial reticence is even more effective: his charactersremain hauntingly elusive even as they reveal themselves. A shattering yet generous story not merely about survival guilt or scientific ethics, but the imperfection and resilience of the human condition. First printing of 60,000
From the Publisher
“A crystalline meditation on the defining event of the twentieth century and its aftermath . . . Inventive and consistently challenging” –Mark Rozzo, Los Angeles Times Book Review

“Mysterious and compelling. . . . An elegant, unnerving novel that illuminates the personal consequences of war.” –Michiko Kakutani, The New York Times

“Exquisite. . . . Bock’s achievement here is in creating characters with believably ambiguous edges, vulnerable people whose understanding of themselves and others is incomplete.” -Janice P. Nimura, The Washington Post Book World

“Bock has shined an illuminating searchlight on the terra incognita where the personal and the political intersect.” –Dan Cryer, Newsday

“A splendid, powerful book, written with authority and admirable control.” –St. Louis Post-Dispatch

“Assured and compassionate.” –Pico Iyer, Harper’s

“[T]his brilliant novel traces the lingering effects of the Hiroshima bombing . . . showing how war binds victor and victim as surely as scar tissue closes a wound.” –Rick Waddington, Minneapolis Star-Tribune

“Reconciliation, responsibility, blame and regret shift and fall in different patterns throughout this moving and thoughtful novel.” –Barbara Fisher, The Boston Globe

“Dennis Bock began The Ash Garden long before the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, but it’s impossible now not to read his haunting debut novel outside the glare of that tragedy. . . . Bock sets a match to ethical issues that are reaching the flash point today.” –Ron Charles, The Christian Science Monitor

“One can go further with this book, and say that Bock has learned just about everything that can be gained from Michael Ondaatje and Jane Urquhart in the use of compelling images. . . . Very, very accomplished.” –T. F. Rigelhof, The Globe & Mail

“This is a gorgeous, poetic novel, with scenes that stun the senses. . . . Bock makes us see and live these lives in all their uneasy compromise.” –Susan Larson, New Orleans Times-Picayune

“For all its worldliness, The Ash Garden feels intimate and interior. . . . [Bock’s] are the battlefields of conscience, the war away from the war.” –Annabel Lyon, National Post

Product Details

Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
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Vintage International
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Read an Excerpt


We had very little in the days when the war was still far away, in the remote place I imagined all wars lived when I was a girl. When it finally came to our city in August 1945 it consumed what little we had left, and years later, when there was nothing left at all, I was forced to journey to America to begin my surgeries. Of course, when I was a child it had seemed to me that what we'd had in those early days was sufficient. All but the barest necessities had been taken from us, but we didn't know any better. I often thought of the war as some great famished beast that ate away at the heart of my people. But my family was no different from any other family in the Asaminami district, the area of the city we lived in, and my brother and I never missed what we'd never had. I do not know if our parents and grandfather felt the same way.

In what might seem a rare gift in the legacy of my family's suffering, my mother and father were lucky enough to die at the same instant, which, for me, is a slight but not insignificant consolation. Neither had to endure the other's death, or the death of my little brother, who followed them not long after. I was left with only my grandfather to take care of me, a scarred and disfigured girl of six with only half a face; and my grandfather had only me to take care of him. Ten years later, when Grandfather fell ill with tuberculosis and finally joined the rest of my departed family, I was in the process of getting a version of my face back, at Mount Sinai Hospital, in New York City. Before I left for America he had made me promise I would not, no matter the circumstance, return to him before the surgeons had completed their work and I was again his beautiful granddaughter. I kept that last promise, and as a consequence he died alone. But slowly my face--or at least a version of it--was restored to me, just as he had always said it would be.

As I have said, my brother and I did not feel the sacrifice as my parents or grandfather might have. We knew nothing different from what we were living through then. It had been like that all our lives, it seemed. The drone of high-flying airplanes, the piercing song the sirens played when a fire- or bombing-drill was staged, the general absence of men in civilian dress, blackout paper covering every window, nothing to eat but rice and bean-paste soup and cabbage. These things did not occur to me as anything special. We knew nothing but war. Planes trolled the skies above our heads. Sirens woke us most mornings. The trenches we'd constructed to contain the spread of fire split neighborhoods into sections. That men must wear uniforms seemed so normal that a young man seen wearing slacks and jacket and fedora looked wildly eccentric to my eyes. Similarly, my father stood out conspicuously. He had not been allowed to join the army. He had been forced to stay home.

The fear I heard in my mother's voice, too, was unexceptional, as were the attempts she made to mask it with reassuring pronouncements and stern, even confident instructions. Outside the home she obeyed my father, as tradition dictated. But inside, where it counted most, I learned, it was the other way around. When action was to be taken, or caution to be exercised, it was my mother who decided which action or cautionary measure. It was she who protected me and my brother, and cared for our grandfather when his breathing became weak or his rheumatism became unbearable, and it was she who tended to my father when he came home disoriented late at night (I didn't know what drunkenness was then), which he did more frequently as the war drew on.

One night I heard my father admit to my mother that he had brought shame to his family and to himself by failing to gain entry to the war. After hearing a loud noise, I'd risen from the mattress I shared with Mitsuo and watched my father cry into my mother's arms, as I stood there at the top of the stairs, hidden in shadow. He insisted that he had been condemned to live out his days branded a coward and a pacifist, a word which was new to me. Pitiful tears streamed down his face. My mother cradled his head and smoothed his cheeks as he pinched the bridge of his nose with his fingers, as if trying to staunch the flow of tears. I wondered if I would be capable of this same tenderness my mother showed. I had never seen my father in this state. But I saw from how she held him in her arms that it was not unknown to her, and that this was something the grown-up world had suddenly, just then, thrust upon me.

My mother listened patiently. She let my father finish talking-crying, then got him in a chair and washed his face with a kitchen cloth. He was mumbling, looking down at his hands. I was afraid for him, and of him. He said the word children under his breath, and my little brother's name, but as far as I could tell he did not speak of me.

My father did not go to work the following morning. He stayed in his bed while we assembled downstairs and ate our gruel and rice-bran dumplings. After breakfast, my mother sent Grandfather to the bank, despite his sore legs, to tell the people there that Father was ill. I accompanied him through the streets to deliver our message.

Though we had all been affected by the war, and the network of trenches and water-filled ditches constructed in the event of an enemy firestorm now marked the city into grids, none of the buildings we passed had been destroyed. As we walked, my grandfather told me that even the enemy respected the beauty of some of our most ancient cities. Not even barbarians would consider destroying our lovely town. Trying to put me at ease, he told me that people of Japanese ancestry were living among the enemy, in distant America, where they had worked to convince their government to spare us. Naturally this knowledge did calm my anxiety, but I was agitated for another reason. What I had seen the previous night was with me still. I wondered if my grandfather knew about my father, and the real reason he was unable to represent us in the world that day.

The streets were already busy that morning. I watched the Miyajima streetcar make its slow crawl up from the harbor, where it always began its run, carrying the older men to their places of work, or housewives to their shopping. Work gangs from outlying communities assembled on street corners, waiting for their morning assignment. There was always more to be done in preparing our city for what might come, and not a morning went by when these work gangs did not collect on street corners in every district, focusing their attention on the tasks ahead. That day there were many soldiers in the streets and on the tram, and their presence further eased my nervousness. We knew they were our protectors, and I secretly understood my father's shame at not being permitted to be one of them on account of his leg, the consequence of a childhood affliction. It would have been a great honor for us. The fathers of many of the children in our neighborhood were away at the war, and at school these children were awarded a special status that I envied. The teachers told us that we were all able to contribute equally, whether at home or away at the war, but the daughters of soldiers were emboldened by the absence of their fathers.

On our route to my father's place of employment to deliver our deceitful message, an odd sensation crept over me. He might indeed be ill, I considered, but he suffered from a different sort of illness from the one we meant to suggest. I was not supposed to know this, of course. My mother was not aware I had heard what had passed between them the night before. But telling a lie--and to the bank! This seemed dangerous and exciting, and opened up for me a new world of unknown possibilities.

We turned left, then right onto the business street, where my father's bank was located. Many of these buildings had been here longer than my grandfather, which seemed an impossibly long time to me. Sometimes I liked to walk along this street--and others, in different neighborhoods--and imagine Grandfather here, as he might have appeared at my young age of six. He had spent the whole of his youth in Hiroshima and, in my mind, it was not difficult for me to create a picture of him as a boy. I used my little brother's small frame as a stand-in when I thought back to what it must have been like, in another century. My imagination simply drew his clear, youthful face and body over my grandfather's old, wrinkled one. I painted his portrait in my head, and a streetscape of what Hiroshima had looked like back then, without soldiers carrying rifles on every corner and blackout paper pasted over every pane of glass. I painted men who wore their dark robes like lords, and wealthy landowners and women costumed in traditional flame-colored kimonos, which had been replaced during the war years by the durable monpe pantaloons all women had taken to wearing.

When we entered the bank, my grandfather asked for Mr. Hatano, the manager. We waited silently at one end of a large room for him to meet with us. Finally his office door opened and he emerged. He crossed the hardwood floor, a stack of papers clutched under his right arm, and bowed respectfully to my grandfather. His shoes creaked. He smelled of soap and hair grease.

"I have been sent by my daughter," my grandfather began, after returning an equally deep bow, "Mrs. Yokuo Amai, to tell you that my son-in-law, Haruki Amai, a diligent employee of this institution, is ill today and is unable to honor his responsibilities. I am to tell you that he will be well tomorrow and that he is deeply regretful he cannot take his post today."

This was my grandfather's particular way of speaking, but it was a manner appreciated by those of his generation, a part of which the man he was addressing seemed to be.

We walked home hand in hand, slowly because of Grandfather's bad legs. I did not ask if he knew he'd been entrusted with a lie. It occurred to me that I might be the only one, besides my mother, to know the true cause of my father's malaise. My child's mind wrestled with this, and finally I decided that my mother must have good reason to do what she had done, though I still had no idea what that could be. Her decision was based on an adult interpretation of the world that was beyond my experience.

She was sitting by my father's bed, talking quietly, when we returned. I heard her voice through the wall and waited patiently for her to come downstairs before I asked her permission to take Mitsuo to the river, a five-minute walk from the house, where we liked to play under the Bantai Bridge.


For months, after waking up in the Red Cross Hospital, I was forced to lie on my stomach in order to let the wounds on my back breathe and heal. My left eye had sealed over with scar tissue and pus since I was shipped here from the Oshiba Aid Station, where we had been taken after being found near the river by a group of soldiers. Mitsuo's cot sat to the left of mine. When the doctors conferred over him I was able to see only their legs and shoes, because I could not lift my head. But my ears were among the few things that had not been damaged. I listened to their voices, and soon began to hate how they spoke when they discussed my brother. They said he was a lost case and soon would die. They wondered aloud what kept him alive. Every morning they seemed surprised that he had survived the night. There was no hope for him, they said.

Nor did I like how they discussed my own condition, gathering around my bed like old men talking politics at a newsstand, bending my arms, poking at my burns. We seemed to them interesting experiments, as you might find the extended and exceptional life of a gnat or beetle interesting. They would stop briefly between our beds, add or subtract some observations from each of our charts and move on again to the next bandaged patient.

The ward was thirty-eight footsteps in length. I knew this because I had counted the paces of a nurse as she moved from end to end, tending to her helpless patients. It was a narrow room, wide enough only to accommodate the length of a cot on either side, with a space running up the center along which new patients could be rolled in or the dead removed on a squeaking gurney. The walls of unpainted plaster, a dull white-gray, had been fashioned roughly. In certain sections I was able to make out the horsehair and straw mixed into the plaster, material that rose to the surface of the wall at the head of my bed like roots pushing up through a sidewalk. Four lamps hung from the wooden ceiling on long black wires. Sometimes the lamps moved slightly when a breeze entered the ward through the windows, which were opened most mornings in order to release the fetid night stink that grew under our bedsheets while we slept. There was one picture in the center of the ward, on the far wall, preserved under a sheet of glass which one of the nurses dusted each morning. This was a portrait of Emperor Hirohito, at whom I could not look directly. This was not due to my awkward position in the bed but because he was more god than man to us then and such unabashed glaring would have shown grave disrespect.

Many nights I could not sleep for the pain that occupied my body like a razing army, and for the news my grandfather had brought soon after he found us here, almost three weeks after the bomb. He told me that our parents had been killed. He told me he had found Mother lying in the street, and Father still in bed. There can be no mistake, he said. You must be strong. After he left that day I tried to destroy the image of their deaths that I held in my head. I did all I could to forget the feeling that came over me the instant the mud around us had turned to stone. But I could not dispel the burning heat in my lungs, and the pain I felt on my skin as it split when the flash of light burned across our path and seared our grandfather's resemblance into Mitsuo's flesh...

From the Hardcover edition.

Meet the Author

DENNIS BOCK'S first book of stories, Olympia, won the 1998 Canadian Authors Association Jubilee Award, the Danuta Gleed Award for best first collection of stories by a Canadian author and the British Betty Trask Award. His first novel, The Ash Garden, was a #1 national bestseller and was shortlisted for the prestigious 2003 International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award, the in Canada First Novel Award, the Kiriyama Prize and the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize for Best Book (Caribbean and Canada Region). It won the Canada-Japan Literary Award and the Drummer General’s Award for Fiction. His most recent book, The Communist’s Daughter, was a national bestseller and garnered much critical acclaim. Dennis Bock lives with his family in Toronto.

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Ash Garden 4.1 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 7 reviews.
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Flameclaw weaves a nest for himself and his mother <p> Fawnstep licks Flameclaw's head, and curls up, sleeping immediatley
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~ Stormflower
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The Ash Garden is a book whose time has come. It relates the story of three characters living through the Second World War, specifically, the tragic bombing of Hiroshima. The tension in the novel is created by the juxtapostion of the stories of a young girl, Emiko who lived thought the blast, a scientist, Anton Boll who was a minor player in the creation of the A-bomb, and his wife Sophie. It explores the lifetimes of these three people and their synchronistic and psychic connections to each other and to a sense of place. The Ash Garden is powerfully written, understated and emotionally rich. It is easy to read and constructed to keep you reaching. It is a book for those who would like to explore a fictionalised 'first-hand account' of an innocent who lived through one of the last centuries greatest human tradgedies and at what cost she survived. The Ash Garden explores in a impartial and compassionate manner, that which drives the hearts and minds of those men and women, who through a sense of what is right, create monstrous havoc in the lives of innocents. This story stretched me and changed me. Certainly the social relevance of The Ash Garden is that it presents so humanely, both sides of a tragic story.