Book Quote:

“Mo was tired of the bellicose, lachrymose religion the attack had birthed, was sickened by the fundamentalists who defended it by declaring the day sacred, the place sacred, the victims sacred, the feelings of their survivors sacred – so much sacredness, no limit to the profanity justified to preserve it.”

Book Review:

Review by Jill I. Shtulman  (OCT 25, 2011)

Ten years have gone by since the Twin Towers came down on 9/11, and through those years, a wide array of talented fiction writers have attempted to make sense of that pivotal experience: Lynn Sharon Schwartz, John Updike, Jonathan Safran Foer, Claire Messud, to name just a few.

The brilliance of Amy Waldman’s book is that she does not try to apply logic to why 9/11 occurred, nor does she attempt to recreate the complex and traumatic emotions that most Americans felt that day. Instead, she explores something broader: the fallout of a country confused, divided, and sick with fear, clamoring to make sense of the insensible.

The book begins with an ambiguous title: The Submission. On a concrete level, the submission refers to anonymous submissions by architects – in the best democratic tradition – who vie for the right to build an enduring memorial to Ground Zero. But read those words again, and the meaning is far deeper. Is Waldman referring to the submission of Muslims to Qur’an law, forcing them into outsider positions? Or is she writing of the submission of too many Americans to their deepest fears?

A bit of all three interpretations exist, but it becomes increasingly evident that it is the latter that Amy Waldman is most interested in. The skeleton of the story is this: the winner of the submission is an American Muslim, Mohammad Khan, whose true religion is his vaulting ambition. (At a later point, Mo’s lover will say to him, “Now I see that it was about you: your design, your reputation, your place in history.”) Raised in the United States since birth, Mo (as he is universally called) has barely set foot in a mosque his entire life. His design – a garden – is comforting and soothing, particularly to the sole member of the selection jury who is also the widow of a 9/11 victim.

Once Mo’s identity is leaked as the winner, the fervor begins. He is called, among other things, “decadent, abstinent, deviant, violent, insolent, abhorrent, aberrant, and typical.” Amy Waldman, the former bureau chief of the New York Times, knows this territory intimately: the ambitious reporter who will do anything for a scoop (including defecting to the New York Post, which traffics in sensationalism), the equally ambitious governor who strives for reelection while inflaming public sentiment, the radio talk show host who plays into his audience’s prejudices. Before too long, the garden is being depicted as an “Islamic victory garden,” Mo is being called by his full name, and his loyalty to the U.S. is being questioned on all fronts.

Amy Waldman characters are nearly always fully realized: whether she’s writing about Mo, Claire – the wealthy widow and key juror on the selection committee – or a seemingly bit player who is propelled to center stage, the Bangladeshi widow Asma, whose husband, an illegal immigrant, worked as a janitor and was killed in the attack.

Although the author’s point of view is not hard to discern, to her credit, she reveals all sides and that is never clearer than during the scene when the public weighs in about the design. The question becomes: “What history do you want to write with this memorial?” Every side is represented, from the professor of Middle Eastern studies who states, “…Achieving that paradise through martyrdom – murder suicide – has become the obsession of Islamic extremists, the ultimate submission to God: to the author on Islamic gardens who asks, “Since when did we become so afraid of learning from other cultures?”

The pretentious artistic debates… the cynical political showboating… the tactical moves of special-interest groups… the media that fuels rumors rather than reports news – all are depicted here. This well-written, thought-provoking, and nuanced book will appeal to many different kinds of readers. With all the posturing, the truth is often found in just letting go. Or, as Mo eventually discovers, “He had forgotten himself, and this was the truest submission.”

AMAZON READER RATING: stars-4-0from 197 readers
PUBLISHER: Farrar, Straus and Giroux (August 16, 2011)
REVIEWER: Jill I Shtulman
EXTRAS: Reading Guide and Excerpt
MORE ON MOSTLYFICTION: Read our review of:


October 25, 2011 · Judi Clark · No Comments
Tags: , ,  · Posted in: Contemporary, Debut Novel, New York City, Reading Guide

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