Me­mo­rial may­hem

The Jewish Chronicle - - Arts & Entertainment - SIPORA LEVY

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.

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