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
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
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
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
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
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
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
- Shortlisted for the Commonwealth Writers Prize 2002 (Regional Best Book)
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 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
Questions for Discussion
- 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
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?
About Bock, Dennis
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?
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?