Former New York Times reporter Amy Waldman tackled a touchy subject and has written what might be one of the best debut novels of the year.
In “The Submission,” Waldman drops her reader into the heart of New York City, two years after a horrific terrorist attack (it's not identified as 9/11, but you get the idea). A jury of art critics, philanthropists, movers and shakers and a representative of the surviving families is responsible for selecting a memorial site design from 5,000 blind entries.
No one is prepared for the resulting furty when it is revealed the jury has selected a design by Muslim American architect Mohammed “Mo” Khan.
“The Submission” has become a darling of the critics.
In The Washington Post, Chris Cleave says, “In presenting us with a world that is recognizably our own . . . the author subverts the central dictum of alternate history: namely, that the single historical switch should precipitate multiple and major consequences.”
Michiko Kakutani, venerable book critic for Waldman's former employer says, “Writing in limber, detailed prose, Ms. Waldman has created a choral novel with a big historical backdrop and pointillist emotional detail, a novel that gives the reader a visceral understanding of how New York City and the country at large reacted … and how that terrible day affected some Americans' attitudes toward Muslims and immigrants.”
In addition to a hot-button topic, Waldman introduces her readers to a large cast of characters, all with a vested interest in the project.
Mohammed “Mo” Khan is at the center of a firestorm not of his creation. Born and raised in Virginia by parents who emigrated from India, he feels professionally stymied. His work has been recognized, but he's passed over for a partnership at large architecture firm where he works. He submites his “garden” design in the competition to gain national recognition. Does he have other motives?
Claire Burwell, wealthy widow left with two small children, was chosen to represent the victims' families. Claire is initially smitten with Mo's design. Will her support continue despite vicious and violent opposition from family members?
Retired banker Paul Rubin chairs the jury who selects Mo's design. Rubin is motivated by his desire to be selected for seats on prestigious boards of directors. He also has a thing for Claire. Can he ride herd on the chaos and come out unscathed?
Ne'er do well Sean Gallagher can’t recover from the loss of his brother, a firefighter, in the attack. Immediately after the tragedy, Sean was the face of grieving families, but now, two years later, Sean finds himself with little to do. Shut out of the selection process, can he control his simmering fury?
Asma Anwar, an illegal Bengali who lost her janitor husband in the attack just months prior to delivering her first child, watches the drama unfold on television, with her dead husband's aunt providing translation. How are she and her son to survive?
By inserting characters that have such high stakes in the outcome of “The Submission,” Waldman gently nudges her readers to examine their own perspectives in a post 9/11 world.
How would you react if a Muslim American won a blind competition to design a memorial at ground zero, the Pentagon or in Shanksville, Pennsylvania? What criteria would you use to defend/disqualify the design? Should his/her work be tossed out solely on the basis of ancestry? What is the right thing to do?
A good story, well told, hangs around after the final page. I didn't listen to the radio on my commute to and from work last week. I spent the time thinking about Waldman's book and wrestling with my final impressions of Mo, Claire, Paul, Sean and Asma. I am certainly in a different place than before I read their stories.
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