Thursday, October 20, 2011

The Submission, by Amy Waldman

Amy Waldman's first novel, The Submission, is a complex and tragic story about the American psyche post-9/11. As the book opens, the jury named to choose a design for the memorial to be built at Ground Zero is debating the two final designs. Claire Burwell, who is representing 9/11 families, advocates for The Garden, a design where, she believes, the bereaved can "stumble on joy." She eventually prevails, and the jury eagerly awaits the revelation of who designed The Garden. To their astonishment and chagrin, the designer is a Muslim-American architect Mohammad ("Mo") Khan.

The news of this development leaks out, and the response is predictable--but the paths traveled by the numerous characters with which Waldman populates the book are not. Claire is one of the central characters--as a wealthy widow who lives in Chappaqua, she is hardly representative of many of the bereaved families. Nowhere is this clearer than through the character of Sean Gallagher, the ne'er-do-well brother of a fallen New York firefighter, who has found his metier leading a survivors' group; he is dead set against a memorial designed by a Muslim and organizes a variety of protests against The Garden. Claire's life is also far from that of another widow, Asma Anwar; she and her husband, a janitor in the World Trade Center, were unauthorized Bangladeshi migrants. Left with a baby born after her husband was killed and unable to speak English, Asma refuses to return to Bangladesh, still clinging to the American Dream. Living in a single room in another couple's apartment, while hiding the fact that she received a $1 million settlement from the government, Asma follows the controversy over the memorial with interest,

As the controversy grows, Claire is frustrated that Mo will not answer any of the questions that begin to arise, many prompted by a series of inflammatory columns by journalist Alyssa Spier: Was the inspiration for his design an Islamic garden? Did he intend the garden as a paradise for martyrs? As her support wavers, Mo, a secular Muslim whose personality is not well suited for the public eye, is stunned by the response. He struggles to deal with the fallout, becoming something of a nomad in his efforts to avoid the press.

These characters are deeply flawed, and yet none is completely without redeeming qualities (on the other hand, there are minor characters who do lack any redeeming qualities). Their struggles reflect how difficult it is to deal with powerful emotions, ideas about right and wrong, and ambiguity. Occasionally, scenes involving debates/meetings go on a bit too long, but the ideas under discussion are worth our consideration. And the story captures a moment in time that we have not yet, unfortunately, left behind.

While I have read a number of novels that deal with 9/11, Amy Waldman's is, for me, by far the most successful.

Favorite passages:
In architecture, space was a material to be shaped, even created. For these men, the material was silence. Silence like water in which you could drown, the absence of talk as constricting as the absence of air. Silence that sucked at your will until you came spluttering to the surface confessing your sins or inventing them.

She had been shaped, was being shaped, not only by those she met on her journey but also by how she lost them.

1 comment:

  1. This book brought home all the fears and anxieties we all share about "the other". The outcome was not predictable. I loved how the book brought us to the present time. The characters were so well developed. I felt that I could picture them. We picked this for our book club because it has a moral dilemma which can be discussed and debated. The fact that Mohamed was an Indian Muslim was clever.
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