WOMEN NOVELISTS ARE often accused of lacking ambition, preferring to create domestic dramas instead of a world view. In her first novel, The Submission (William Heinemann, £14.99), Amy Waldman, an American journalist, confounds the critics, embracing the War on Terror, Islamophobia, political correctness, personal grief and media responsibility.
The action begins in 2003. A panel is deciding on the prizewinner for a memorial to the victims of the Twin Towers disaster. The entries are anonymous and, after some deliberation, they choose a garden. When the architect responsible is discovered to be an American Muslim, Mohammed Khan, the ensuing media and political fallout creates havoc.
The other main protagonists are Claire Harwell, a 9/11 widow; Paul Rubin, the Jewish Committee chairman; Sean O’Connor, brother of a fireman who died during the rescue operation; and Asma, a Bangladeshi Muslim and widow of Inmar Anwar, who also died in the Twin Towers. Her situation is a precarious one as she is an illegal immigrant in receipt of a large reparation from the US government. By voicing the rage, ambivalence and prejudice of her characters, Waldman has created wholly believable human beings, demonstrating how tragedy invariably brings out the best and worst in people. The architect, Khan, is driven by a mixture of ambition and altruism. Claire, a woman who formerly seemed to have had it all, discovers how fragile her sense of self is. Sean, a recovering alcoholic, is trying to make amends to his parents after the death of his favoured elder brother, Patrick.
Perhaps the most interesting and sharply drawn character of all is Asma. Hindered by her position and unable to speak English, she is reluctant at first to be drawn into the political debate. But, as she watches events unfold, she feels compelled to act and, with the help of an interpreter, finds the courage to speak out — with devastating repercussions — on behalf of her community.
Waldman’s narrative is confident and her writing has a clever freshness, whether in arresting observations ---“Paul… glimpsed the part in Claire’s hair, the line as sharp and white as a jet’s centrail, the intimacy as unexpected as a flash of thigh” ---or acute summary ---the perceived demonisng of the Muslim Khan draws the parallel: “The Jews thought they were German until they weren’t.”
Though a compulsive page-turner, The Submission asks more questions than it answers, sensitively exploring complex issues. Waldman’s is a fine achievement.