By Amy Waldman
Farrar, Straus and Giroux August 2011
Claire Burwell lost her husband Cal during the attack on the Twin Tower on September 11th. She is the only family member on a jury assigned with the task of choosing a design for a memorial. The contest is open to all, and the process is anonymous. After much debate, the group decides on a design. They open the envelope and discover that the winner is named Mohammad Kahn. Can the panel allow a Muslim to design the memorial honoring the people who lost their lives because of Muslim extremists? In America, can they deny Mohammad the honor simply because of his name?
I was a little wary of picking up this book. So much of what has been produced as a result of 9/11 is very pointed, filled with blame and fear-mongering. But Ms. Waldman has written a masterpiece in The Submission. There are not sides in this novel, just a group of people who find that one day in September forever changed their lives and their beliefs.
This is an ensemble novel. We read about the perspective of Claire and Mohammad, or “Mo” as he prefers to be called. We also experience the events through the eyes of the panel chairman Paul; Sean, the brother of a fallen firefighter who sparks a media firestorm when he pulls off the headscarf of a Muslim woman; Alyssa Spier, a journalist who is determined to stay on top of this story; and Asma Anwar, the widow of a Bangladeshi man who was a janitor in the Twin Towers. Each character struggles with their new identity in the wake of the tragedy – are they defined by who they think they are or by the way they are perceived?
“The centers of hundreds upon hundreds of webs of family, friends, work had been torn out. It staggered Mo, shamed him. These men who had given vent to their homicidal sanctimony had nothing to do with him, yet weren’t entirely apart. They represented Islam no more than his own extended family did, but did they represent it less? He didn’t know enough about his own religion to say. He was the middle-class Muslim son of an engineer, a profile not all that different from some of the terrorists. Raised in another society, raised religious, could he have become one of them? The question shuddered through him and left an uneasy residue."
This is an excellent book. A few pages in, my thought was that Ms. Waldman is a wordsmith. Every sentence is precise in meaning and flavor. This is a taut, highly nuanced topic and this writer rises to the occasion with grace and precision.
“She had been shaped, was being shaped, not only by those she met on her journey but also how she lost them.”
The ending was not quite satisfying for me but, upon reflection, how can there really be closure here? There is no happy ending for the woman who has lost her husband or the man whose life has been overturned by racism. There is only the determination to get through each day and try to come to terms with the events of the past and the emotions they left behind.