When the scientists of the Manhattan Project detonated the first atomic bomb in New Mexico in 1945, they were afraid the bomb might set off an uncontrollable chain reaction. When Dennis Bock audaciously opens his first novel, The Ash Garden, with the bombing of Hiroshima, the reader feels a similar uncertainty: will Bock be able to control the story he has set in motion?
Bock tells the story of two lives that are permanently changed by the Hiroshima bomb, and the skill with which he draws these characters is the principal reason for the novel’s success. The Ash Garden is a controlled explosion of a story, hugely energetic, powerful, and complex. It talks about surviving both world-shattering events and life’s mundane struggles, about what is lost and what grows up in its place, and, most importantly, it speaks about humanity.
One rarely meets new people in fiction – even the best literary creations often have something generic about them. But both of the novel’s principal characters are fully realized individuals with unique stories. Half the book is narrated in the first person by Emiko, a Hiroshima survivor and a documentary filmmaker, whose latest project happens to be about the bomb. One of the people she approaches for an interview is Anton Böll, a scientist who worked on the Manhattan Project and was later sent to Japan to assess the aftermath. The sections of the story that follow Böll’s life are told in the third person – the reader is never allowed fully inside his head, and, like Emiko, must puzzle over Böll’s feelings about his role in the building of the bomb, and his understanding of his own humanity.
Bock’s writing is both dense and immensely readable, as engaging when it focuses on life’s minutiae as when it explores life’s catastrophes. The Ash Garden is difficult to forget and it rewards repeated readings in a way that few novels can.