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Thursday, May 02, 2013

DENNIS BOCK'S NOVEL, THE ASH GARDEN -- AS PARADOXICAL AS ITS TITLE

Fifty years after Emiko Amai loses half her face and almost all of her family when the first atom bomb is dropped on Hiroshima, she is a documentary filmmaker seeking information on the bombing.

In Dennis Bock’s compelling novel, The Ash Garden, Emiko seeks out Anton Boll, a German physicist who worked on the Manhattan Project to develop the bomb and then went to Japan to study the aftermath of its use. She also meets Boll’s Austrian wife, Sophie, who came to Canada as a Jewish refugee and who lost her entire family during the Holocaust. These three characters’ intertwining histories and their individual perspectives produce a powerful look at how human beings may react to the seminal moments of their lives—particularly when those moments happen in a time of war.

Anton Boll is first and foremost a scientist. He leaves his native Germany not for political or moral reasons. Rather his single mindedness and dedication to his science lead him to break with the scientists with whom he works and with whom he disagrees. He seeks his own avenue, and he leaves Germany as well as his mother whose fate, presumably sealed by his defection, he reflects on just once in this novel.

He is, in fact, the last scientist to flee Germany before the borders close, and that is as late as 1940. Science is more than his vocation; it is his lifeblood. The politics are unimportant.

Sophie is Jewish, and after escaping Austria, she eventually finds herself in a refugee camp in Canada, behind wires and with guards to keep the refugees in. The war rages in Europe, but Sophie is a teenager determined to escape from this camp too. Anton, a young and handsome visitor to the camp, sees her, falls in love and rescues her by marrying her. She does love him, and they are blissfully happy.

The war forces their togetherness to be short lived as before long he is called away to Los Alamos to continue his work on the development of the atom bomb. There he remains.

The bomb is successful; the war ends, and Anton visits Hiroshima to study the destruction. He is stunned beyond comprehension.

When he finally reunites with Sophie who has waited patiently in Brooklyn, he finds he cannot communicate his reactions to Hiroshima nor can he fully understand his own reactions to what he experiences and the devastation he sees in Hiroshima. He finds Sophie is also changed, and things cannot be as they once were. She does not reveal the sources of her change either. Much as they want to, they cannot go back to “before the war.”

Over the ensuing years, Sophie’s and Anton’s attempt to cope with their physical and psychological alterations and to find some way to exist happily together is a constant struggle because, in their own ways, they still love each other. Their very different backgrounds, their inability to fully communicate, and their physical problems are minefields they tread carefully.

Emiko’s entrance in their lives appears unexpected, but this novel is full of the unexpected, so be prepared to gasp.

She, of course, wants Anton to admit that the bomb was wrong and that he is repentant for his work. That is not the way he feels, and as their relationship unfolds, we see sides of him heretofore hidden as well as sides of her of which she was not even aware.

This is a book well worth reading. It is well written. It will travel well, and it will give you pause to think.

How you, the reader, react to this pivotal moment in history and to this book is something I would love to discuss. Unfortunately I missed the discussion with my own book club, but if you read The Ash Garden, please use the comment link at the bottom of the post or email me. I’d really like to know, and I’d like to share my own thoughts with you.
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