In spite of the current American frenzy for all things World War II-- Tom Brokaw's Greatest Generation books and the theatrical release of the bombastic Pearl Harbor, to name two examples-- we have heard relatively little about the Japanese WWII experience. In his debut novel, The Ash Garden, Canadian writer Dennis Bock works toward a more comprehensive depiction of events by examining, through the stories of three people, the emotional, physical and intellectual consequences of America's unleashing of the atomic bomb. At the outset, we hear from Emiko, who, at age six, drew mud pictures on her four-year-old brother's back while playing on a riverbank that fateful morning of August 6, 1945: I enjoyed the way the black mud quivered like a fat pudding and glistened in the clear morning sunshine as I held it up to my face. Bock's descriptions are often sensual, so that reading becomes an almost tactile experience. His imagery also succeeds in quietly underlining the novel's broad themes, particularly regarding the irresistible pull of dangerous knowledge.
And though the other two main characters don't get to tell their stories themselves, Bock's calculated inclusion of them provides balance. Anton Bšll, a German physicist, escapes from Germany to America in order to help develop the atomic bomb. Along the way, he meets Sophie, an Austrian Jewish refugee who becomes his wife.
Sophie's story feels truncated and cloudy in comparison to Emiko's and Anton's -perhaps rightfully so, since the true focus here seems to be their fateful link to each other.
Their paths cross because, by 1995, Emiko is a semi-famous documentarian, and while making a film about Hiroshima, she seeks out Anton to convince him to tell his story on camera. To this end, Emiko travels to Anton and Sophie's home in Canada, and during Emiko's stay, Anton reveals a secret to her.
In this complex, intelligent and thoroughly satisfying novel, it is the Japanese character, Emiko, who gets the last word. Through her final thoughts, the book ends on the kind of contemplative, reflective note that it -as well as all people involved, intentionally or not, in WWII deserves.
Jenn McKee teaches at Penn State University.