Only a few months ago, our country was immersed in an intense debate over the “Ground Zero” mosque. In her first novel, The Submission, former New York Times reporter Amy Waldman offers a fictional account of a similar controversy that’s noteworthy for its complex characters, moral seriousness and willingness to raise soul-searching questions Americans will be forced to answer with ever-increasing urgency.
Two years after 9/11, a jury of 13 prominent New Yorkers meets to select the winner of a contest to design a memorial at the site of the World Trade Center. To the dismay of many, the winner, picked from an anonymous field of entrants, turns out to be a Muslim, a partner in a successful New York City architectural firm. Virginia-born Mohammed “Mo” Khan, whose connection to his faith is tenuous at best, reluctantly finds himself at ground zero of the controversy that surrounds the choice of his design, known as “the Garden.” When the Times architectural critic highlights its similarity to a traditional Islamic garden, the smoldering public opposition bursts into a full-blown blaze.
What is most rewarding about Waldman’s novel is her deftness in shunning stereotypes, offering an array of characters both appealing and frustrating in all their human complexity. She skillfully manages multiple points of view to tell the story, among them Claire Burwell, jury member and widow of a wealthy investment banker killed on 9/11; Sean Gallagher, the brother of a firefighter victim, who becomes an angry spokesman for survivor families; and Asma Anwar, a Bangladeshi immigrant, widowed herself on that terrible day, whose dignified appearance at a climactic public hearing provides the story’s moral anchor. These characters and others are buffeted by the emotions, some genuine and others stoked by the media and special interest groups pursuing their own agendas, that swirl around the memorial.
Despite the evident parallels between Waldman’s story and the mosque debate, its perspective is both fresh and vivid. Manifesting a confidence that thoughtful fiction can prove more illuminating than fact, she’s produced a novel whose questions will resonate long after the controversy of the moment has played itself out.