Even though this novel was published in 2001, I just recently had the opportunity to read it for the first time, and decided to do a little write up about it.
Many things have been said about this novel, and it was rightfully the winner of several awards for Dennis Bock, a Canadian author.
The Ash Garden is a tale about the residual effects of the dropping of the nuclear bomb on Hiroshima, which effectively ended the Second World War. We are given a story of interwoven lives, and how the dramatic impact of that day lasted through the years, both physically and emotionally.
Emiko was six-years old when the bomb fell on her home town, killing her entire family. She is now faced with a life of horrible scarring, particularly facial scars, and the reconstructive surgeries that take place when she is sponsored to go to America to “get fixed.” As she grows older, Emiko becomes a film maker, and she begins to create a documentary about the Hiroshima bombing, and those that are involved in it. As a survivor of the attack, she leaves herself out of the face of the lens, but is forced to deal with what happened to her life based on the actions of others.
Anton is the German-born scientist who worked on the Manhattan Project, helping to create the bomb itself, and then studying the after effects of its use. His story, like Emiko’s, takes place on a couple of timelines, so that we are able to see different parts of his life story, and how it all rounds out towards the end. Anton is constantly faced with the ethical issues of the bomb: dropping it surely ended the war and saved innumerable lives, but at the same time, it created awful death and destruction to those who were unfortunate enough to have been there when it went off. It ruined lives for generations. With Anton, we also get to see his personal life, away from the lab, with his wife, and the third narrator of the story, Sophie.
Sophie escaped Europe during the war due to the persecution of the Jews, and part of her story is her journey to Canada, part her love story with Anton, and part her struggle with illness.
There are great parts to this novel, and some that could have used a little more.
Reading other reviews of The Ash Garden, several people complained that the story was too slow moving, or that it was confusing knowing what the actual timeline was since the narrative jumps around. I found nothing of the sort. For the timeline, Bock clearly labels the years he is discussing in the chapter headers, so this should not be an issue for any reader. Each character essentially has three parts of their life being told, and it really isn’t difficult to decipher what is happening, and when. Secondly, at just under 300 pages, I found the book to be a very quick read. It is engrossing. While the plot may not be moving forward at the pace of a locomotive, this is not the kind of book that you read when you are looking for that style of action. You don’t rent a drama when you are looking for pure action. There may have been a couple of lulls in the story, such as the romance between Anton and Sophie that doesn’t constitute the best part of the novel, but it moves along nicely, and gets us to the place that we know it is going all along: an encounter between Emiko, and the man who indirectly scarred her for life, Anton.
The story of Emiko is definitely the highlight of the novel. Her plight as an innocent girl, forever changed from the dropping of the bomb, takes us on a journey to the US, where the good people there are looking to improve her facial scarring, as well as using her as a type of experiment on the after effects of using a nuclear weapon on humans. Bock does a great job at letting us know, and understand, Emiko, as she is not only a sympathetic character, but a tough one, as well. Even though the scars she wears inside are as visible as the ones on her face. She is haunted by what happened to her, and her family, and she seeks an understanding of why it all had to happen, and who was responsible for it all. Emiko is not seeking revenge, or justice. She just needs to know.
And that is the beauty of the book. It is just a simple journey, of how the past affects how we are, and who we become, even if the decisions that lead us down our path aren’t our own. Everybody has their burden, and it weighs on us in different ways.
Dennis Bock uses incredible description to get his story across. There isn’t really that much dialogue in the novel, and he uses haunting beauty to lay out his tale. The descriptions of the violence caused by the Hiroshima bombing are gruesomely effective, painting us a picture that we don’t really want to see, but must.
I could have gone for a little more of the historical aspect of the era, specifically in Anton’s story, where there could have been more interesting things about the mysterious Manhattan Project, and the race to create the world’s deadliest weapon before the Nazis were able to. For me, this could have added some more non-fiction to the story, and included an important part of history as well.
The Ash Garden is a wonderfully written book, and it intertwines the three stories so seamlessly, that it really does become one solid narrative. The novel has a lot of thematic depth, and would be good for study at various levels.