The Ash Garden
by Dennis Bock
Published by HarperFlamingo Canada
281 pages, 2001
Buy it online
Reviewed by Margaret Gunning
Thirty-some years ago when I was an impressionable young girl in high school, we used a textbook in English Lit class called Poetry of Relevance. One of the poems that burned itself into my brain from that collection was Tim Reynolds' A Hell of a Day, which recounts a certain fateful event in the town of Hiroshima:
Watering her chrysanthemums,/Mrs. Kamei was surprised to see the plants/blacken, water turn to steam. Both Dote and Michiko/noted the other's absence but not her own./Mr. Kime lifted his hat, but his head was gone... Then old Mr. Ekahomo struck a match/to light his pipe, and the town caught, and dissolved in flame.
That poem jumped out at me from the pool of memory when I read the prologue of Dennis Bock's searing first novel, The Ash Garden. Six-year-old Emiko Amai has just seen a large dark object fall from the belly of a plane. Her little brother Mitsuo looks up and notices:
He licked his lips, still watching the strange object fall. I saw his eyes then his whole body turn away from the scene that had interrupted our morning game. The glint of a smooth stone had stolen away his attention. It glistened at his knees in the brilliant morning sun, and suddenly it began to glow and the stone rose up from its mud pocket, which in an instant turned hard-baked and grey...
Blackened flowers, mud turned to stone. In such moments of dire poetry, history is changed. Award-winning short story writer Dennis Bock did a very bold thing in writing The Ash Garden: he approached the horror at Hiroshima on August 6, 1945 through the eyes of an insider. Two insiders, really: Emiko Amai, the little girl who lost half her face and most of her family in the blast, and Anton Böll, one of the European scientists who helped to develop the bomb.
It seems wildly unlikely that the destinies of these two people should become so intertwined. Unlikely because they came from such completely different worlds, and because one was the victim and the other, a kind of perpetrator. But by the time I finished reading The Ash Garden it was hard for me to judge which character had been more deeply affected by the events of August 6, 1945. Both lives had been formed, and deformed, by the fatal flash. The ways in which each managed to survive the trauma and make a life form a large part of Bock's story, which courageously explores all the ambiguities of the horrific event that effectively ended World War II.
When the novel opens, little of this ambiguity has yet come to light. At least in the eyes of Anton Böll, the bomb was a necessary evil, something that had to be done to save even more carnage: "Fifty years ago," he lectures to a class at Columbia University in 1995, "my colleagues and I gathered around a radio in Robert Oppenheimer's office, in Los Alamos, New Mexico, waiting for official confirmation of what, for all of us there, had been a lifelong dream .... And as we all know, dreams sometimes become nightmares."
It is as if Böll has, after all these years, learned the correct thing to say: "He was an old hand, a polished performer .... It was easy enough to see, listening to one of his talks, that he was a man with a particular and unforgiving point, which was that the nightmare, terrible as it had been, would always be overshadowed by the majesty of the dream."
When a middle-aged Japanese-American woman with a scarred face approaches him after the lecture, disturbing cracks appear in his role of polished performer: "He felt, if only for a moment, the wavering of lifelong convictions." Emiko Amai has come to talk to Böll about interviewing him for a documentary film she is making about the development of the bomb. Anton Böll knows she has every reason to hate him, but instead finds something closer to detached curiosity. Thus begins a connection more complex and emotionally fraught than either of them could have anticipated.
But Dennis Bock does not do the expected thing after setting up the basic dynamics of this story. Once these two have met, they do not come together directly again for some 150 pages. Much of Bock's energy is channeled into carefully detailed backstory. Böll's life is recounted in conventional third person, distancing it somewhat from the shattering event of the bomb. But in a stroke of authorly wisdom Bock allows Emiko to speak her story in her own voice, stripping away the buffering effect of distance.
So while the novel begins with tremendous intensity, it slows down considerably in the middle as crucial personal details gradually form a meaningful pattern. All of this is intentional, as it creates a building anticipation of these two figures meeting again. When they do come together in the last third of the book, the impact is huge, leading to a riveting conclusion.
Bock goes to all this trouble so that we might come to know the personal and historic forces that shaped his main characters. Emiko's story is particularly stark and raw: "My mother and father were lucky enough to die at the same instant," she recounts, "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."
In fact Emiko and her grandfather, a retired doctor, are the only survivors in her family. After the blast she lies in hospital in mortal agony for months, poked and prodded by American scientists sent to do follow-up research. When she is given a chance to go to New York for reconstructive surgery on her horribly disfigured face, this redressive strategy feels like just another traumatic ordeal which she must endure in silence.
Anton Böll's backstory is even more complex, taking him from the Germany of his birth across the Pyrenees into Spain, then to America to work on the Manhattan Project team. Along the way he meets the young Austrian woman at a refugee camp in Quebec who will become his wife. Sophie, an important third character in Bock's story, has fled the Nazis in Europe only to become involved with a man whose conscience will continue to torture him, if on a deeper-than-conscious level, for the rest of his life. Her own chronic illness and childlessness lend another layer of grief to the story.
The couple spends their retirement years in a small Ontario town, where Sophie loses herself in obsessive gardening, creating strange animal shapes out of the greenery. Anton comes to realize that their often-difficult but enduring marriage has been "deeper than a lover's commitment, though that, of course, had been there. It was deeper than family or any other shared history could have provided. It was what they had lost that linked them."
Though Emiko is startled to discover that Anton Böll was one of those American researchers poking at her wounds after the bomb, the strangeness and intensity of the connection between them is almost more than she can fathom. The damage Hiroshima has done to Böll, and the psychological stretch it has taken for him to live with it, rivals her own ordeal. This is no easy reconciliation, no wholehearted embrace of former enemies. Even when Anton reveals some amazing secrets, which he hopes will please her, Emiko reacts defensively, even angrily.
But the mere fact that these two can sit in each other's presence is a marvel, leading at least to a degree of understanding, if not emotional completion. The Ash Garden is a brave book, one which unmasks the many ugly facets of human evil: all the elaborate justifications of violence, the twisted ironies of war, and just what is meant by that awful military expression, "collateral damage." In the wake of September 11 The Ash Garden is eerily prescient in its themes, a stark reminder that conscience may be the last, greatest hope of the human race. | November 2001
Margaret Gunning has reviewed many books but never gets tired of the grand adventure of reading. Her poetry has appeared in Prism International and Room of One's Own. She has written a novel (A Singing Tree) and a book of poems (Nonsongs and Neopsalms), and is currently at work on her second novel, Better than Life.