The Submission by Amy Waldman

"There were in life rarely, if ever, "right" decisions, never perfect ones, only the best to be made under the circumstances."

A jury gathers in Manhattan to select a memorial for the victims of a devastating terrorist attack. Their fraught deliberations complete, the jurors open the envelope containing the anonymous winners name - and discover he is an American Muslim. Instantly they are cast into rolling debate about the claims of grief, the ambiguities of art, and the meaning of Islam. Their conflicted response is only a preamble to the country's.

In short, a jury unknowingly chooses a Muslim American architect to design a 9/11 memorial. However, this is not a 9/11 novel. Waldman never cites the date of the attacks, and doesn't mention The World Trade Center, referring to the attack site simply as "the towers". Of course it's no secret Waldman is referencing 9/11, but she avoids the specifics as a way of emphasizing that instead of focusing on the day itself, the novel explores the extreme tensions and complicated race relations of the post-9/11 world. It should be noted that the premise and later conflict that ensues echos that of the Park51 debate; while similar disputes are explored in The Submision, Waldman gives her novel its own unique voice and memorable cast of characters that makes it stand out from any other non-fictionalized story it may resemble.

Waldman examines every side of the table through a diverse array of characters: those who are in support of the Muslim American architect, those who are not, those who change their mind and, of course, Kahn's own frustrations with the contest. With every point of view introduced, the subtext of the novel becomes more complicated, but never confusing. Ultimately Waldman doesn't tell us who is right or wrong, though she does make clear the blind closed-mindedness of many individuals. Rather, the novel encourages the reader to question how many of our post-9/11 fears are sensible and to what extent they are hurting the Muslim Americans in our country.
The propaganda's coming from the people who want to make you a bogeyman. They are creating a climate where dangerous things can happen. The rhetoric is the first step; it coarsens attitudes. Look at the history of Nazi Germany. The Jews thought they were German, until they werne't. Here they're already talking about us as less American. Then they'll say we need containment, and next thing you know we'll be interned.
As the title implies, Waldman weaves the the theme of submission throughout, working on a number of levels, the most obvious being Muhamed Kahn's submission into the contest to design a memorial - the submission that sets the entire book in motion. But the theme of submission goes deeper: the submission that exists between sexes and the submission that exists between cultures. Waldman also explores the refusal of submission, namely the non-apologetic attitude that is characteristic of modern-day America.

Waldman's fiction has appeared in The Atlantic, Boston Review, and The Best American Nonrequired Reading 2010. This is her first novel. If you are looking for a book that will challenge your notions of post 9/11 America, I ask you to let The Submission be it.

A big thanks to my mom for gifting this book to me, it's a favorite of the books I've read so far this year.

Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2011


  1. This sounds really good- I'm a sucker for first time novelists.

  2. This sounds challenging and fantastic. Great review and now I"m adding it to my TBR list.

  3. I honestly wasn't really sure I wanted to read a book based on the events of 9/11, but your review makes it sound as if this one is carefully and skillfully done. I'll have to check it out soon!

  4. See this is what I love about readers and bloggers: (2) people can read the same book and have totally different opinions of it. I had this on my wish list and then last week I read a negative review on the novel. Today I read your terrific review and decided, I need to judge this one for myself LOL

  5. Christine, You know I haven't read a lot of first time novelists but you may be on to something...

    Red, Oh it is good. Not challenging in the sense that it's difficult to read, but challenging in the ideas and feelings she conveys.

    Zeteticat, It really is more about our post9/11 world than it is about the tragic events that day.

    Diane, That's a really good point. It's important to judge for yourself sometimes and I hope you do! I'd like to read the negative review and see why she didn't like it. Do you remember who posted it?

  6. I've heard of this one, but this is the first review I've read of it. I'm fascinated by the premise and obviously I trust your taste.

  7. Melissa, Thanks that nice to hear. I think you'd like this one.

  8. Fascinating issue. Sounds like an intriguing read.

  9. You liked this one more than I did! I loved the set up and part of it, but I found some of the writing to be groan-worthy. I'm glad it brought you such joy!

  10. Trish, It is!

    nomad, Oh no I thought the writing was great. Different strokes for different folks I suppose.

  11. I was unsure when I saw that this book had something to do with the WTC and 9/11 but when I read what it was about I was captivated by this smaret story. I also love what you said about how Waldman weaves the theme of submission throughout the novel in myriad ways.

    I really enjoyed your review.