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The Ash Garden By Bock, Dennis
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The Ash Garden

Reader’s Guide – The Ash Garden

About the Author

Dennis Bock has been called Canada’s next great novelist. His first book, Olympia, received international acclaim, while The Ash Garden has met with both critical and popular success. A graduate of the University of Western Ontario, Bock lives with his wife, Andrea, and their son, in Guelph, Ontario.

Inside The Ash Garden

One morning toward the end of the summer they burned away my face, my little brother and I were playing on the bank of the river that flowed past the eastern edge of our old neighbourhood, on the grassy floodplain that had been my people’s home and misery for centuries.

So begins The Ash Garden, an immensely complex and powerful novel. The story traces the intersections among the lives of three very different people, linked forever by the atom bomb, the Destroyer of Worlds, the dream that became a nightmare.

Emiko Amai, a six-year-old Japanese girl orphaned and disfigured in the bombing of Hiroshima, is now a well-known and respected documentary filmmaker. Though American doctors helped erase the shadows from her face, they cannot erase the deeper scars on her soul.

Anton Böll, Professor Emeritus at Columbia University, was a member of the Manhattan Project and a

scientific observer in Japan three weeks after the bomb was dropped. Living now with his ailing wife in a

peaceful Ontario town, he has attended memorials for fifty years to explain that, "These were hard

decisions, made by studious and good men mindful of their responsibilities to mankind. Yes, in a perfect world it could have been otherwise, only in a perfect world …"

Sophie Böll, a half-Jewish Austrian refugee, was alone and friendless in a Canadian detention camp until she met Anton, the man with whom she would spend her life. Now, despite suffering from acute lupus, Sophie still manages to find the strength to support her husband.

With these three characters, Dennis Bock transforms a familiar story—the atom bomb as a means to end worldwide slaughter—into something witnessed, as if for the first time, in all its beauty and terrible power. The Ash Garden travels from the dawning of the modern age that August day over fifty years ago, to the present, where the far-reaching consequences of our actions still echo. Exploring on an intimate scale the repercussions of mankind’s most pivotal moment, The Ash Garden is an astonishing triumph.

In His Own Words …

Dennis Bock speaks on The Ash Garden, inspiration, and the writing process. This interview originally appeared in Bold Type, an online literary magazine, found on the Web at www.boldtype.com.


BT: What led you to write The Ash Garden?


DB: I didn’t start writing the book with a peculiar or identifiable burst of energy or certain controlling idea. Writing, for me, is a very slow, deliberate and arduous process. Moments of euphoria happen, and tremendous elation; but more accurately, it’s a day to day slog. The process of revelation is piecemeal and vague and hit-and-miss. One of the responsibilities of the writer, I should think, is hanging on long enough to be there for the moment the next layer of the onion skin is peeled back.

BT: Emiko, one of The Ash Garden’s principal characters, tells family stories to her little brother as he lies dying of injuries sustained during the blast, and later becomes a documentary filmmaker—an unflinching, pictorial storyteller. I found myself wondering if Emiko is a stand-in for you in particular, or the figure of the writer or storyteller in general, in your novel. Is that what you intended?


DB: It was not my intention that any character in the novel should represent anyone or anything other than themselves or, for that matter, any calling or pursuit or discipline. I don’t think in terms of symbols or representations—not when it comes to my characters. I try to write the character as best I can. I find if I spend time thinking about what the character means, rather than who he or she is, the game is up. It’s the reader’s responsibility, if he’s so inclined, to make whatever connections he can.

BT: Following the previous question, how do you think Emiko as a documentary filmmaker, a conveyer of truth and reality, affects the status of your novel as potential truth? Do you think that the parallels there give your story more authority? Or do they emphasize that you, too, are more trying to tell a story than present an interpretation?


DB: The fact that Emiko records history falls within the purview of her vocation. That’s her job; that’s what she does. Now, if you’re to tell me that a writer also records history, and is a purveyor of truth and so on, well, I’ll accept that. But such a connection or parallel is secondary to my intention.


BT: Did you feel a heightened sense of responsibility to your subject in approaching the topic of how people’s lives were affected by the bombing of Hiroshima? Is that something you actively seek out as a writer?


DB: Sadly, these are actual historical events I deal with in the novel. When you’re working with a subject matter like this, when you know there are real people out there who still have a living memory of the day the bomb was dropped, and may still be living with the physical and mental scars that the bomb caused, you’ve got to be prepared to give everything to the novel. You have to treat your characters with great respect. I actively seek out big and challenging terrain, if only because that’s what fascinates me. When you’re talking about the kind of time investment that the writing of a novel demands, you have to guarantee yourself a project that will keep you thinking hard for years.

BT: What did you read in preparation for writing this book? Also, what books or writers serve as inspiration for your technique?


DB: I did a ton of research. This is something I enjoy. First, it gets me out of the house. I go down to the library and nose around there for hours, looking for anything connected to what I’m writing. I rarely go with something specific in mind. I happen across something, it takes hold of my imagination or not. Immediately I see how it might fit into the book I’m writing. It’s a very haphazard sort of research style. In preparation for The Ash Garden, I looked at a lot of scientific reports, photo essays and documentaries. I didn’t read books from cover to cover because I wasn’t concerned with gaining any sort of encyclopedic knowledge of the time that would shape my characters’ lives. I looked for small details that would serve to reveal something about these people. An understanding of the big historical events is crucial in setting the scene, as it were; but more interesting for me is slowing the characters down sufficiently so that they become real and representative of no one but themselves.

I consciously avoided fictionalized accounts of the historical events in question because I didn't want to be influenced by another writer's voice. Likewise, I stayed away from novels like Memoirs of a Geisha in order to avoid any indirect or unconscious absorption of a non-Japanese writer's take on a Japanese voice.


BT: The Ash Garden pulls off the considerable feat of presenting three principal characters with equal complexity and depth. I did note, however, that your characters seem invested with different levels of empathy—I was able to feel much more for and through Emiko than for and through Anton, for example. Do you want readers to empathize equally with all of the main characters? Do you empathize equally with all of them?


DB: I wasn’t really trying for empathy. What I was trying for was balance. Equal time, equal validity. You may not agree with Anton's point of view, or the reason he chose to participate on the Manhattan Project, and that's fine. What I wanted to do, though, was to show that his reasons for living his life the way he does was necessary and inevitable for him. It’s about respecting the characters you create, not agreeing with them. And if you respect them as the writer they will find the space they need in order to establish their motivations, in so far as they are able and willing to reveal them.


BT: I was struck by your ability to take a narrative and characters so impacted by these cataclysmic events, potentially the most important moments of the 20th century, and make them "ordinary"—that is to say, believable. How were you able to do this? Was it a challenge?

DB: This goes back to something [I’ve said before]. A basic understanding of the historical events is necessary. But just as necessary, if not moreso, is the impulse to make these people real. Otherwise you end up with a trio of stock characters who are merely representative and not at all believable. Anton, especially, was a challenge to write. His emotional secrecy, intellectual brilliance and moral slipperiness are all things I don’t possess. Beating those qualities out of him (or into him) took the greatest effort; you can’t just say a character possesses these qualities and therefore it is so. You’ve got to find as many ways as possible to suggest these qualities to the reader.


Awards and Distinctions

  • Winner of the 2002 Canada – Japan Literary Award
  • Winner of the Drummer General’s Award for Fiction
  • Shortlisted for the Kiriyama Pacific Rim Prize
  • Shortlisted for the 2001 Amazon.com/Books in Canada First Novel Award
  • Shortlisted for the Commonwealth Writers Prize 2002 (Regional Best Book)
  • # 1 National Bestseller

Praise for The Ash Garden and Dennis Bock

"Harrowing … mysterious and compelling … An elegant, unnerving novel that illuminates the personal consequences of war, transforming characters who might easily have been mere symbols or representative types into keenly observed individuals: people indelibly shaped, in anomalous ways, by their losses and their grief …"

~ Michiko Kakutani, The New York Times



"Bock is wise beyond his years and astonishing in his passion, compassion, candour and ability to honour an older generation without betraying the younger."

~ The Globe and Mail

"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."

~ January Magazine

If you liked The Ash Garden

… you might also enjoy these other titles from HarperCollins:

Olympia by Dennis Bock

The Stillborn Lover by Timothy Findley (available March 2003 from Perennial Canada)


Questions for Discussion

  1. In The Ash Garden, Anton’s and Sophie’s stories are told in third person, while Emiko speaks directly to the reader. Why do you think the author made this narrative choice? How does this affect and complement the underlying themes in the novel?

2. Emiko tells Anton at their first meeting, "I don’t begin with themes. I begin with time and place and event. Themes reveal themselves later, if at all." Does Bock begin with themes? What themes emerge over the course of the book?

3. A documentary filmmaker, Emiko repeatedly asserts that she will "not turn the camera on myself." As one of the narrators of the novel, is she successful in maintaining neutrality towards her subject? Is the author?

4. Discuss the significance of Bock’s recurring use of video cameras, mirrors, and photographs in the novel.

5. Two working titles for the book were A Man of Principle and After Emiko. Why is The Ash Garden a stronger title? What role do gardens play in illustrating various themes?

6. Near the beginning of her narrative, Emiko says, "I had never required the existence of a guilty party to understand the deaths my parents suffered that terrible day … I sought no villain, needed no culprit. … Like so many lives of that time, ours had been shaped by a faceless violence; I understood that. And did not feel, beyond a slow-burning hatred for the American doctors and photographers who tormented us, any desire to cast blame." Anton, however, seems certain upon his first meeting with Emiko that she will attack him: "He waited for the assault to begin—war criminal, crime against humanity—as he studied her face." Given what we know of the characters by the end of the novel, how much truth do these initial reactions reveal? Does Emiko really seek to place no blame? Does Anton?

7. Anton and Sophie are unable to have children. How is this significant? How does this affect their interactions with Emiko?

8. During their interview, Emiko and Anton discuss their awareness of wartime atrocities. Do you agree with Emiko that denying knowledge of Nazi activities is a "cop-out"? Do you agree with Anton that if that is the case, Emiko has no excuse either?

9. As a young girl, Emiko feels isolated. As a woman, it is clear that this "separateness" remains. Having finally embraced her solitude, Emiko discovers that she was not as alone as she had thought. Discuss her reaction to Anton’s revelation.

10. Discuss the significance of Anton’s statement about Sophie’s death, "I helped her die. …" Why does he explicitly seek absolution from Emiko for this and not for the bomb?

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