The Ash Garden: A Novel
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I thought it was quite brilliant. In this interview in Quill and Quire Bock tells about the trials of writing The Ash Garden. He made several false starts before coming up with this story of a scientist who participated in developing the atomic bomb, a woman who was a young girl in Hiroshima when the bomb was dropped and the wife of the scientist who suffers from lupus all her life. Anton Boll was born in Germany and worked in Hitler's research into atomic energy until he fell out with one of the other scientists. He then defected to the US where he was involved in the Manhattan Project. While travelling in Quebec he met Sophie, a young Austrian woman who managed to escape Europe on a ship that was bound for Cuba. They weren't allowed to land in Cuba so she spent some time in an internment camp in Scotland before coming to an internment camp in Canada. On the ship in the Havana harbour Sophie had her first experience with lupus although it was some years before she was diagnosed. Emiko was playing with her younger brother by the river when the atomic bomb was dropped in Hiroshima. Both her parents were killed but her grandfather, a doctor, survived (I would have liked to have known why he was not killed or injured by the bomb, something that is never explained in the book). Her younger brother survived for some weeks after the bomb blast but died one night in hospital in the bed next to Emiko.
Fifty years later, Emiko approaches Anton at a rally and asks him for an interview for a film she is making. At first Anton refuses but then he contacts her and asks her to come to his home in Ontario for the interview. Anton and Sophie had left New York City some years earlier to settle into a house by Lake Ontario where Sophie could garden to her heart's content in the years left to her. Emiko comes, planning on only staying one night but after her first interview with Anton she realizes there is more to explore. Anton had taken movies when he spent time in Hiroshima just after the bomb was dropped and Emiko can not resist seeing this film.
The three central characters are so complex I cannot possibly do justice to them in this review. Physical scarring and psychological scarring play a big part. For a book written by a man the women characters are exceptionally well rendered. Bock apparently did not travel to Japan but he read many accounts and he seems to have the voice of Emiko perfect. As to Sophie, I couldn't find any information about how he could write so convincingly of a woman with lupus but I suspect he must be well acquainted with someone who suffers from that disease.
The garden Sophie creates is obviously meant to contrast with the ash garden that was created in Hiroshima by the bomb. And it is not just any ordinary garden. Sophie fills it with topiary structures so that Anton is surprised at what he finds as he strolls through it. Even as she gets sicker she thinks about her garden and gives Anton directions about what needs doing.
Anton is cast as the saviour for both women but perhaps he saved them from something that they would rather have experienced. Sophie is never able to return to Europe to find out what happened to her family. Emiko is brought to the US for plastic surgery and has to stay there while her grandfather dies in Japan. Anton seems to have left behind his family without any qualms so he probably finds it hard to understand what Sophie and Emiko feel.
Many, many layers here. This will be a book I think about for quite a while.
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