Thursday, April 03, 2008

'The Ash Garden'

by Dennis Bock
Fiction/WWII/Japan, 2001
Bloomsbury UK, trade pb, 264 p.
Shortlisted for the IMPAC Dublin Literary Award, 2003
Winner of the Canada-Japan Literary Award, 2002
Read the first chapter here.
Interview with the author
What would happen if a Hiroshima survivor encountered one of the scientists responsible for the atomic bomb?

Emiko Amai was six years old when on 6 August 1945 she survived the first atomic bomb. Her parents were killed, and her younger brother horrifically injured. A decade later she was among the twenty-five scarred ‘Hiroshima maidens’ brought to the United States for reconstructive surgery.

For Anton … and his colleagues at Los Alamos, New Mexico, news of the explosion was confirmation of a dream. … was a refugee of conscience from Germany, a recruit to Oppenheimer’s Manhattan Project who believed the sooner they cracked these nuclear equations, the safer the world would be.

With remarkable clarity and perception Dennis Bock’s compelling and poignant novel explores what happens half a century later, when Anton and Emiko finally stand face-to-face.
It started off really strong. The opening scene with Emiko and her brother playing on the bank of the river and then watching the bomb drop is quite haunting. The story then moves back and forth in time and switches between Emiko and Anton’s stories. Of course it also brings up the morality of whether using the atomic bomb was justified by delving into the perspective of both the scientist and survivor, but mainly this was the story of these characters as people that were forever damaged by what happened and brought together because of it. The eventual meeting of Anton and Emiko many years later and the sharing of past secrets had the potential to be very powerful and moving but somehow I wasn’t drawn into it and the situation and characters remained distant from me as a reader. And at the end I was left wondering what impact their meeting actually had. As for the characters themselves, it was the relationship between Anton and his wife Sophie, that I found the most touching as it changed and grew over the years.
It was certainly worth reading though and visiting the Atomic Bomb Museum on our recent trip to Hiroshima while reading it helped me to visualize the event, the time and to understand what Emiko and others might have gone through.
I’d definitely read something else by Bock and I see that he has a newer book out, The Communist’s Daughter, that sounds interesting and that I’m adding to my wish list.

My Rating: 3.5/5
(#12 for 2008)


  1. Hi tanabata, it seems i would have an easier time getting into this story than BLACK RAIN. Perhaps it is less dark if one can even say this, i do not think so. I remember seeing the pilots and others on that plain who survived into the '80 on TV, horrified at what they seen and some unable to live with the image! The mushroom cloud overwhelmed them. If you can lend it to me I would love to read it.

  2. Madeleine- I've only read a bit of 'Black Rain' so far but I do think 'The Ash Garden' is "less dark" as you say.
    I was debating whether to keep it or not, so this is perfect. I'm trying to get better about letting go of books I probably won't read again.

  3. "The eventual meeting of Anton and Emiko many years later and the sharing of past secrets had the potential to be very powerful and moving but somehow I wasn’t drawn into it and the situation and characters remained distant from me as a reader."

    That's too has happened to me as well with some books, and most of the time I just can't figure out exactly why.

  4. Nymeth- I'm not exactly sure either why I didn't really connect with it. There were some touching moments but overall just that ... something... missing. Oh well, can't love them all! :P

  5. This sounds like a really interesting book, Tanabata. Thank you for reviewing it. The time period in history especially interests me.

  6. Just reading about the opening scene gave me chills! I'm sorry the book didn't quite live up to the expectations it set up in the beginning but it still sounds like a good read. And, I had never heard of "Hiroshima maidens". I'm adding this to my book list.

  7. Literary Feline- Even though I didn't end up loving it, it was still interesting. I'm interested in the time period too, and I'm always interested in anything Japan-related.

    Iliana- The opening scene read a bit like it was in slow motion and from their children's perspective they didn't realise what it was!
    I hadn't heard of 'Hiroshima maidens' either so it was interesting to see it mentioned in the Museum in Hiroshima and see a picture of them boarding a plane for the US. He certainly grounded the story in fact even though the characters are fictional.


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