A scientist stealing across the Pyrenees into Spain, then smuggled into America . . . A young woman quarantined on a ship wandering the Atlantic, her family stranded in Austria . . . A girl playing on a riverbank as a solitary airplane appears on the horizon . . . Lives already in motion, unsettled by war, and about to change beyond reckoning-their pasts blurred and their destinies at once defined and distorted by an inconceivable event. For that man was bound for the desert of Los Alamos, the woman unexpectedly en route to a refugee camp, the girl at Ground Zero and that plane the Enola Gay. In August of 1945, in a blinding flash, Hiroshima sees the dawning of the modern age.
No matter how far they travel from Hiroshima, the protagonists of Canadian author Bock's roomy, thoughtful novel are marked by the effects of the atomic bomb. For Emiko Amai, the imprint lingers on her face, in the form of burn scars from the heat of the bomb's detonation in 1945, when she was six. For Anton B ll, a refugee German scientist who helped build the bomb, the scars are emotional, though he tried to transform his feelings into images in a series of secret films shot among Hiroshima's ruined buildings. For Sophie, Anton's wife herself a half-Jewish refugee from Austria there is the pain of exile, a debilitating illness and the heavy shadow of her husband's guilt. Though Anton claims that the bomb was dropped "to save lives," he remains acutely aware of the human cost, both to its victims and himself: "I know the world requires a certain payment from us... for the freedoms we enjoy. We have all paid." When Emiko confronts Anton in 1995 at a lecture in New York, he surprises himself by agreeing to participate in a documentary she's filming. He invites Emiko to the quiet house he shares with Sophie in Ontario, and as Sophie declines toward death, Anton tells Emiko all the ways he has influenced her life since Hiroshima. In his attempt to obliquely represent the overwhelming horrors of Hiroshima's destruction, Bock (Olympia) has created a group of characters with closely guarded emotional lives. When they reveal themselves, it's in flashes as brilliant as the splitting of the atom. (Sept. 11) Forecast: Though his novel cannot touch a nonfiction classic like John Hersey's Hiroshima, and may be overlooked in the crowded ranks of WWII-inspired fiction, Bock acquits himself well. A first printing of 60,000 copies and a six-city author tour attest to Knopf's faith in this sophomore effort. Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information. -- PUBLISHERS WEEKLY.
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January 07, 2003
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Excerpt from The Ash Garden by Dennis Bock
We had very little in the days when the war was still far away, in the remote place I imagined all wars lived when I was a girl. When it finally came to our city in August 1945 it consumed what little we had left, and years later, when there was nothing left at all, I was forced to journey to America to begin my surgeries. Of course, when I was a child it had seemed to me that what we'd had in those early days was sufficient. All but the barest necessities had been taken from us, but we didn't know any better. I often thought of the war as some great famished beast that ate away at the heart of my people. But my family was no different from any other family in the Asaminami district, the area of the city we lived in, and my brother and I never missed what we'd never had. I do not know if our parents and grandfather felt the same way.
In what might seem a rare gift in the legacy of my family's suffering, my mother and father were lucky enough to die at the same instant, which, for me, is a slight but not insignificant consolation. Neither had to endure the other's death, or the death of my little brother, who followed them not long after. I was left with only my grandfather to take care of me, a scarred and disfigured girl of six with only half a face; and my grandfather had only me to take care of him. Ten years later, when Grandfather fell ill with tuberculosis and finally joined the rest of my departed family, I was in the process of getting a version of my face back, at Mount Sinai Hospital, in New York City. Before I left for America he had made me promise I would not, no matter the circumstance, return to him before the surgeons had completed their work and I was again his beautiful granddaughter. I kept that last promise, and as a consequence he died alone. But slowly my face--or at least a version of it--was restored to me, just as he had always said it would be.
As I have said, my brother and I did not feel the sacrifice as my parents or grandfather might have. We knew nothing different from what we were living through then. It had been like that all our lives, it seemed. The drone of high-flying airplanes, the piercing song the sirens played when a fire- or bombing-drill was staged, the general absence of men in civilian dress, blackout paper covering every window, nothing to eat but rice and bean-paste soup and cabbage. These things did not occur to me as anything special. We knew nothing but war. Planes trolled the skies above our heads. Sirens woke us most mornings. The trenches we'd constructed to contain the spread of fire split neighborhoods into sections. That men must wear uniforms seemed so normal that a young man seen wearing slacks and jacket and fedora looked wildly eccentric to my eyes. Similarly, my father stood out conspicuously. He had not been allowed to join the army. He had been forced to stay home.
The fear I heard in my mother's voice, too, was unexceptional, as were the attempts she made to mask it with reassuring pronouncements and stern, even confident instructions. Outside the home she obeyed my father, as tradition dictated. But inside, where it counted most, I learned, it was the other way around. When action was to be taken, or caution to be exercised, it was my mother who decided which action or cautionary measure. It was she who protected me and my brother, and cared for our grandfather when his breathing became weak or his rheumatism became unbearable, and it was she who tended to my father when he came home disoriented late at night (I didn't know what drunkenness was then), which he did more frequently as the war drew on.