What’s in a name?

This is my review of The Submission by Amy Waldman.

In a competition to design a suitable memorial to the victims of 9/11, the jury members choose a garden. When the envelope is opened to reveal the identity of the architect, he turns out to be a Mohammad Khan, a name likely to inflame feelings in the jittery aftermath of the disaster. As the chairman stalls for time, the situation is leaked to the press, and a media storm breaks. The real-life outcry over the plan to open a mosque near Ground Zero after this book was published shows the credibility and prescience of the theme.

In a tightly plotted tale, Amy Waldman introduces us to a large cast of characters representing a wide range of opinions, and develops their distinct personalities and motives with some skill. There is Claire, the rich and beautiful widow, not very representative of the other victims' families, who feels that the choice should stand on the basis of merit, and to ensure the fair operation of the system. Paul Rubin, the chairman, wants to persuade Khan to withdraw, so as to minimise trouble and safeguard his own reputation as a "safe pair of hands". Sean, the ne'er-do-well handyman whose brother's death has given him status and purpose to defend the memory of the firemen who perished at the Twin Towers, voices the widespread simple prejudice against any muslim involvement in the memorial. Governor Geraldine Bitman, who seems a caricature until one remembers Sarah Palin, wants to gain political advancement out of attacking Khan. In the other camp, the American muslim activist Issam Malik sees Khan's case as a source of publicity for his cause.

Issues are aired in ding-dong dialogues which often read like the script of an earnest play, presenting us with both sides of a range of arguments. Many assume the worst of Khan without knowing anything about him. In fact he is a sensitive man free from any fanaticism or subversive intent, but proves his own worst enemy in stubbornly insisting on his right to the award, whatever the cost. Then, he progresses to wanting the right not to explain himself to those who leap to thinking the worst of him.

Although I was gripped by the plot and unable to predict the end, Waldman's tendency to reveal her profession by drifting into jarring journalese proved a frequent source of irritation. Also, some of the final scenes in which people "shift sides" appeared a little rushed to me. I felt that the dramatic international scale storyline fizzles out as various characters vanish from the page, but at the very end, decided that the subtle ending is exactly right, with its focus on the failure of communication between two individuals who in many ways have much in common – both appreciate the beauty of a minimalist garden subject to Islamic influences which in turn draw on previous ideas of peace and harmony.

You realise at the end that the ambiguity of the title is also quite subtle. Life is not a simple question of winning or losing…….

⭐⭐⭐⭐ 4 Stars

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