Saturday, April 19, 2014

The Submission

Despite the glowing reviews, I probably wouldn't have chosen to read Amy Waldman's The Submission if it were not my book group's May selection. I feel as if I've read and watched enough stories exploring the trauma of the 9/11 attacks that all possible emotional and psychological territory has been covered.

Ms. Waldman hasn't found a new planet in the 9/11 universe, but her fictional story of the chaos following the selection of a memorial design to honor the victims is a thoughtful portrayal of the complex relations Muslim-Americans faced during the years following the attacks. 

The novel opens with a jury of 13 choosing between two final designs for a memorial to be built on the site of the destroyed towers. A rule of the competition is that the designers remain anonymous until the winner is announced. The jury chooses "The Garden," and the chairman opens the envelope to read the name of the winning designer: Mohammed Khan. So begins a saga that will upend the lives of the enigmatic Mr. Khan, some members of the jury, families of the victims and assorted other characters.

The story is told primarily from the perspectives of the ambitious architect Mo Khan and the wealthy Claire Burwell, a 9/11 widow who has championed his design on the jury. These two seem to have more in common with each other than with anyone else in their lives, and the reader has the feeling that if they could just sit down for dinner together, they would form an impregnable alliance. But a conversation doesn't happen until too late, after events have forced both into entrenched positions.

If the novel asks a central question, it is probably "how can we learn to trust each other?" That's a crucial debate for any society.

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