Author: Amy Waldman
Publisher: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux
American release date: August 16, 2011
Format/Genre/Length: Novel/Political/Current Events/320 pages
Overall Personal Rating: ★★★★
Two years after the devastating events of September 11th, a nation still grieves. In an attempt to offer some surcease of sorrow to the country, and to those who lost loved ones on that terrible day, a memorial has been proposed, and a blind competition held to pick the best design for the memorial. Now the jury who will make the final recommendation is down to two names, but when they choose, and realize that the winning architect is a Muslim, can they uphold this choice, or will it destroy not only them, but the memorial, and divide a grieving nation?
Among the members of the jury is Claire Burwell, the sole representative of the families. She lost her husband, her two children their father. It is she who fought for the Garden design, unknowing of its origins, as being most soothing and healing to the families, as well as to the nation. Opposing her is Ariana Montagu, leaving the head of the jury, Paul Rubin, to play peacemaker and voice of reason. The design that Ariana promotes is far more bleaker than the simple, lovely garden. When Claire’s eloquence prevails, the discovery is made that the designer, Mohammad Khan, is a Muslim. Now what are they to do?
The Submission deals with some very important issues, questions that dig deep into the psyche of a nation. Mohammad, or Mo, as he prefers to be known, is an American, with little interest in or ties to his religion. But he resents that he is being pegged because of the fact that he was born a Muslim. When Claire presses him for answers, he refuses to give them on the grounds that the questions should not have been asked, nor would they be asked of anyone else. In that respect, The Submission reminds me of The Contender, in which a woman senator is being investigated because she has been proposed as the next Vice President of the United States. Some very race photos alleging to be of this woman, taken during her college years, have surfaced, causing quite the scandal. But when asked to confirm or deny that these photos are of her, she says she will not answer, on the grounds that were she a man, no one would have even asked the question.
Is the design suspect because proposed by a Muslim? Does that change what the design is, what it says? This was the purpose of the blind competition, was it not? To prevent the personality of the entrant to interfere with the choice of the design, as being two separate entities, and not relevant one to the other. Where does art begin and politics end? Is this a beautiful American garden? Or was it designed with Islam in mind?
The Submission is filled with memorable characters on both sides, not the least of which is Asma, whose husband died also on that terrible day. The difference in her situation and Claire’s is that Asma and her husband are from Bangladesh, and he was an illegal immigrant.
Many profound questions are explored in this tale. It is Amy Waldman’s first novel, and quite the debut. The only criticism I can make, and this is just my own opinion, is that I get no real feeling for the story, by which I mean it’s told in an almost cold, distant manner. Maybe that’s what she intended. Maybe that’s a means of keeping an objective perspective. I’m not saying she needed to take sides, or anything of that nature. But I would have liked to have seen more warmth in the people as people.
Regardless, it’s well done, and a provocative look at the nature of America and Americans. A real eye-opener. I’d like to see what else Ms. Waldman can do.