Posted by: Jeanie F | January 14, 2012

The Submission: A Novel by Amy Waldman

While the events of 9/11 are never specifically mentioned, The Submission is the story of New York City’s attempt to construct a memorial to the thousands who died in a horrific attack perpetrated by Muslim terrorists.

The novel opens as the jury selected to judge submissions for the memorial come to a consensus on the design. The jury is made up of a variety of stakeholders: community leaders, artists, and a single family member of one of those killed in the attack. This particular juror, Claire Burwell, has lost her husband. Representing all the families that have lost loved ones, she plays a particularly vocal – and privileged – role in the final selection, and sways the jury to support her choice: a walled garden that includes a pavilion for contemplation, intersecting canals, and steel trees constructed from the salvaged scraps of the wreckage.

The rules require that the jury view the submissions “blind,” with no knowledge of the designer and his/her background. When the decision is made and the designer revealed, it turns out to be an American-born Muslim named Mohammad Kahn. Kahn, who goes by the nickname “Mo”, is a non-practicing Muslim; born, raised, and educated in the U.S.A.

As might be expected, the selection of a design submitted by a Muslim sets off a firestorm of controversy, and it is around this controversy that the story evolves.Waldman has brought in a wide variety of voices –  families of victims, politicians, Muslims, journalists – to represent the competing factions of the controversy, and it is in these voices that the tension and interest lie.

Anyone who remembers the outcry against the building of a Muslim community center near the site of Ground Zero has a pretty good idea where this story is going, but that doesn’t dilute the propulsion of emotion that Waldman builds through the first half of her story. She does an excellent job of representing all points of view and raising sides to the issue that were new to me and may be to you, also. If she continued to press points that had been adequately covered, sometimes bordering on redundancy, I believe it was only to bring resolution to the large cast of characters.

The writing is sometimes overwrought, and Waldman often stretches for metaphors that don’t quite work (my favorite: “She ate ramen noodles from the vending matching, their texture just a few molecular recombinations from the Styrofoam cup containing them.” Ouch!)

Nevertheless, the subject matter and points raised are compelling, the controversy one that will force you to re-examine your own biases. . . all in all, a good exercise in understanding others’ points of view.

Grade: B

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