Amy Waldman: The Submission (review)

This is the third book I read in my small 9-11 read-along and it’s definitely the easiest read of the three, the other two being Don DeLillo Falling Man and Jonathan Safran Foer Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close. Still, even with being an easy read, this has a lot of information about the aftermath of 9-11.

A jury has been gathered to decide on a memorial for Ground Zero. This is two years after 9-11 and the jury has been going through a lot of entries and finally narrowed it down to two – they argue back and forth about which one and finally the jury decides on a design –  with especially the support of Claire Burwell, who is representing all the families who lost someone in the attack. They choose a beautiful garden enclosed by a wall with the names of all the victims on it.

But when they open the envelope with the name of the architect, they get a bit of a surprise. The architect turns out to be an American Muslim, Mohammad Khan.Now the question becomes if it matters who the architect is. Turns out it does. When it’s leaked to the public that the architect is a muslim, all hell breaks loose. Claire still sticks up for him but faces serious opposition from a lot of the other families.

The families are torn between what to think about a Muslim architect. Some see it as a way to reconcile – others see it as a slap in the face. Can a Muslim design a memorial for all these people who were killed by other Muslims?

A sidestory to this is the story of the illegal immigrants who also were killed in the attack, personified by Inam and Asma Anwar’s story. They come from Bangladesh to get a better life in USA. But Inam is killed in the attacks and Asthma is now on her own with their little boy. Without understanding much English, she has to find out to go on living as a single Muslim woman. She wants her husband to be mentioned on the memorial. She wants a place to go with her son to remember his father, her husband. When she decides to speak, her words have a huge impact.

There was some events towards the end that I at first thought would put an amazing twist to the story but it didn’t really work for me. I also quite didn’t believe in Claire’s development. I was sure that she was going in one direction and when she went in the complete opposite one, I was very surprised – especially since it came right after her remembering a situation with her husband, talking about how you can like an artwork without liking the artist or vice versa, that liking one and hating the other isn’t mutually exclusive.

What I did like about this book was it’s focus on how difficult it was to be a Muslim at that point. How all Muslims were judged by what a few extremists did and how the difference between being a terrorist and a Muslim disappeared. I liked the focus on how hateful the dialogue became and how you couldn’t say anything critical of the government without being called unpatriotic. It really put a spotlight on the importance of not judging an entire group of people by what a few representatives from that group do.

I really liked how Claire’s children build cairns all the way through New York to guide their daddy home. I loved that way of showing how children need something tangibly to work through their grief – it reminded me of how Oscar in Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close visited all the people named Black to solve what he thought was the last riddle left to him by his dad and how the children in Falling Man sits at the window looking for planes. The building of the cairns is a beautiful thing. And it becomes clear that it’s also an extremely important thing since we later in the novel both have a destruction of a cairn and also a new cairn, a very significant cairn.

These cairns are a way of remembering. One way. Just one way. Nothing more. And that’s the thing. If you visit a cemetery, you will see how many different ways there are of remembering. The gravestones differs, there are small stone birds and bird baths on some graves, constantly fresh flowers on others and so on. So with all these people killed on 9-11, how do you make one memorial that will suit all? Not to mention the rest of the States. As well as the fact that this memorial also have to send a signal to the rest of the world. What is the right way to remember all this loss of life?

I think the novel really works in bringing about the way it felt like in those first years. How hard it is to follow your head and do what you know is right when your heart is screaming out against it. How things don’t exist in a vacuum but are depending on so many other facts and circumstances and how our decisions are influenced by all this. It might have been taking the easy way out to write the novel from a young Muslim woman’s viewpoint but to me, she was a more interesting than Claire. But maybe that’s more because I don’t quite believe in Claire’s decisions.

I have a hard time rating this novel. I think there’s a lot of good in it but maybe it didn’t live quite up to my expectations. I think maybe that while at the same time the novel’s strength is how easy and quickly it is in discussing some very serious topics about racism, sorrow, anger and a nation trying to heal itself, it’s also the novel’s weakness. I felt like it skated a bit over the issues without going completely in depth with any of them. But it is a good read, it raises some interesting points but I still think Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close is the better 9-11 novel of the three, I’ve read now.

  • Title: The Submission
  • Author: Amy Waldman
  • Publisher: William Heinemann
  • Year: 2011
  • Pages: 299 pages
  • Source: Own Collection
  • Stars: 3 stars out of 5

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2 thoughts on “Amy Waldman: The Submission (review)

  1. This sounds like a good pick for a book club, I’m sure I would inspire some debate. I’m not American (I’m British) but think I would enjoy this as lots of the issues would definitely translate.

    • I think it would be wonderful for a book club – it will definitely start some really interesting discussions! I’m not American either (I’m Danish) but still enjoyed it and the atmosphere in it was just as I imagined the atmosphere in NY and USA at that point – and as I felt it on the internet.

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