Volume 95, Issue 45

Wednesday, November 21, 2001
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Can-Lit greatness discovered in an Ash Garden

Nothing beats a 15-year-old pianist

Suicide Machines far from dead

Cranberries rule Cherry in the fruit bowl

Can-Lit greatness discovered in an Ash Garden

By Matt Pearson
Gazette Staff

Looking back on the 20th century, few images are as burnt into the global consciousness as the vision of an ominous mushroom cloud, bursting into flames above the Japanese city of Hiroshima, wreaking havoc and destruction on all those below.

Yet behind this image – this destruction – are the people effected by it. Their experiences lie at the core of Dennis Bock's latest novel, The Ash Garden.

The 37-year-old writer grew up in Oakville, Ontario before he left home to study English and philosophy at Western.

The Ash Garden begins in August, 1945, as the atomic bomb is dropped on Hiroshima at the close of World War II.

The novel elegantly weaves the lives of three characters – a Japanese girl who lost her entire family at Hiroshima and was sent to New York for reconstructive surgery, a German scientist who emigrated to the United States to help construct the bomb and a Jewish-Austrian teenager who ended up in a refugee camp in Canada.

It is a stunning novel that explores the connection of three strangers whose lives intersect, following an event far larger than they can ever hope to understand.

Bock's interest in the topic relates to his life as the son of German immigrants. He vividly recalls the stories his parents relayed to him when he was a child – stories of their childhood set amongst the horrors of the Second World War.

Photo by Peter Paterson
"I became sensitive to the idea that ordinary individuals were pushed around and trodden on by these enormous political events," Bock says. "My first understanding of war was what it does to little kids and only much later did I understand what World War II was all about politically and socially.

"It made me pre-disposed to think of the small, ordinary lives that were affected, against this enormous backdrop of political and social change," he says.

Although Bock may in some ways be closely connected to the war, he did not necessarily have it in mind when he began writing the novel. "I didn't start with a controlling idea, image or character – it was just this really gradual movement towards what it is now," he says.

"I started writing the book in 1997 and what I started writing is absolutely different than the book that was published. There's a very gradual unveiling, only half of which I am conscious of.

"It's like peeling back an onion skin every day to find yet another transparent layer that might or might not be there," he explains.

While some writers meticulously plan their works – sometimes down to the smallest detail – Bock's approach is quite laissez-faire. He builds his work, piece by piece and only when each piece is finished, does he fully understand what he has constructed.

"Everyday I pound blindly [into my computer], come up against a brick wall, hit the library and do some reading and research until I accidentally knock my head against some interesting fact, detail, anecdote or historical event, which pushes the narrative a little further along," Bock says.

"I'm a very intuitive writer – I certainly don't start with a plan or a scheme or a diagram in terms of the movement of the narrative or characters. I just blindly push ahead, make lots of mistakes [and] backtrack until I finally have something that makes sense."

According to Bock, the completion and release of his novel is a great relief. "[The book is] off to a great start – people are reading [it] and it's got some good reviews. You worry about the reception and whether anyone's gonna read it and give a shit about it, so it's nice to know that," he says.

Judging from The Ash Garden's glowing reviews, people are definitely taking note.

Although Dennis Bock writes about one of history's darkest hours, his delicate, deliberate approach allows readers to see past that enormous mushroom cloud and into the eyes of those most affected by it.

Dennis Bock will read from The Ash Garden tonight at 7 p.m. at the London Public Library's Central Branch. Admission is free.

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Copyright The Gazette 2001