Friday, December 2, 2011

Another 'What If?'

The 'what if' that Amy Waldman poses in her novel The Submission is a provocative one – what if architects were invited to anonymously submit plans for a memorial to be located at the site of the World Trade Center, dedicated to the memory of those who died on 9/11. And what if the selection jury - artists, academics, a representative of the New York governor, and a 9/11 widow representing all the grieving families – chose a winner who turned out to be an American-born Muslim named Mohammed Khan?

Inevitably a furor ensues, fueled in part by Khan's aloofness and refusal to explain the influences on his design, which his enemies describe as an Islamic garden meant to glorify the Muslim martyrs who attacked the towers. Waldman creates a host of characters - the radio talk show host interested in stirring controversy, the tabloid reporter intent on building her reputation, the undocumented Bangladeshi widow whose husband worked as a janitor at the towers, the governor whose position is based solely on her desire for higher office, the ne'er-do-well brother of a fallen fireman who relishes his time in the spotlight. At the center of the controversy is Claire Burwell, the rich widow on the jury who initially champions Khan's design but wavers as he resists her pressure to mollify his critics.

Waldman manages to give each of her characters a distinctive voice, and even as the volume rises on their arguments she resists turning them into caricatures. I found it a compelling story that mirrored the real-life emotional and political atmosphere that still exists ten years after 9/11.

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