Dennis Bock's well-wrought first novel The Ash Garden (Knopf; 281 pages) cuts through the moral debates surrounding the dropping of the atomic bomb on Japan and paints a humane, detailed tableau of its fallout on both its American creators and those whom it was sent to destroy. Setting fictional characters against a historical landscape, the Canadian author traces the life of Anton Böll, a German scientist who was a star of the Manhattan Project, as his journey entwines with that of Emiko Amai, a little girl from Hiroshima who lost her face to the world's first atomic blast.
When the book begins, Böll is lecturing at a New York university on the 50th anniversary of the bombing. The speeches have become part of his summer routine, a litany of self-justification. Every August he dusts off a laundry list of rational explanations to "ensure that the truth was being told." Following his talk, Amai, wearing a face reconstructed by the "skilled hands" of an American surgeon, approaches Böll. Now 56 and a documentary filmmaker, she wants to interview him about his role in making the bomb.
These two, whose fates were joined by the 4,000-kg bomb that killed more than 75,000 people on that warm, clear August morning, are set on a collision course, but one that ultimately leads to understanding. For Böll, the scientific triumph of his career has become a paralyzing albatross, quietly hounding his conscience. "Dreams," Böll concedes, "sometimes become nightmares." The book's pages, too, are haunted with visions of the devastation: "polka dots and stripes, the clothing patterns that the blast imprinted on the skin."
When Böll's wife Sophie—an Austrian Jew whose parents were victims of the Nazi death camps—falls ill, her dying designs for her husband's salvation lead to an eleventh-hour revelation, bringing Böll and Amai together. Böll looks to Amai to redeem him for what he's done, what he's made. And when Amai sees through Böll's facade to his depressed, almost somnolent state, she recognizes a shadowy reflection of kyodatsu, "the condition of despair and exhaustion" that possessed the Japanese after the war, and begins to comprehend the price he paid for victory.
The Ash Garden may not be a page-turner, but Bock's prose lures the reader along through smooth, sculpted sentences full of rich detail and subtle meditation. With patient intensity he weaves characters that are particularly relevant now, revealing how victor and vanquished, both burned by the shock waves of horrific events, must both become survivors.