An anonymous competition to design the 9/11 memorial in NYC. A panel of 13 judges including the widow of a man who died in one of the towers. A winner who turns out to be a Muslim. With these straightforward facts begins a book that is anything but straightforward: Amy Waldman's debut novel, The Submission.
Even at first glance it's clear that the opportunity for drama is all over this plot but without the right touch it could easily become a treatise for one side or the other or a simplistic piece of fluff. Waldman avoids both these perils and produces a book of such depth and complexity I read it twice. While there are the key players it is the supporting cast that enhances and enriches the plot- even when the characters are of a type to make you grind your teeth. The emotions such characters engender keeps the story taut from beginning to end.
We meet people like Asma, a Bangladeshi native living illegally in NYC who loses her husband in one of the towers. On the surface this is a woman who can't read or speak English and so, is devalued and ignored. And yet we see the crystalline clarity of her mind and her desire for answers even from her own religion (“The men who killed Inam believed it was an act of devotion, one that would get them to paradise, she told the imam. Everyone said so. How could the same paradise make room for both them and her husband?”). We feel her confusion and pain but even the unsympathetic characters are written with such depth, layers and flavor that they read as real not caricature.
Waldman gathers this diverse cast around a theme that still evokes strong emotions, represents the viewpoints of each with almost journalistic neutrality, and makes the reader care deeply about the outcome, even as we watch the situation devolve into the increasingly common forum of American discourse- the volume of what you say is more important than the content. She creates this level of involvement through a masterful use of language. Sentences as simple as “The janitor began pushing his supply cart and sadness across the cluttered room...” resonate and linger. This ability to evoke strong emotion distinguishes The Submission as something to be savored and read carefully. From its opening chapters, with the horrified reactions of the jurors at their choice, to the subsequent actions of the winner, notions of right and wrong are challenged.
There are treasures on every page of this complex, complicated tale. Right up until the poignant last sentence.
I'd like to thank friend and fellow reviewer, Diane Prokop, for leading me to this book. It was her review and interview with Amy Waldman on her blog that piqued my interest in a book I might not have discovered. Thank you many times over, Diane!