By Amy Waldman
Amy Waldman is a journalist (“The New York Times” and “The Atlantic”) and this is her first novel. The premise of the book alone is pure genius. As the book opens a non-partisan committee is evaluating over 5,000 designs which have been anonymously submitted in competition for a memorial to be constructed at Ground Zero. Claire Burwell, the only victim’s family representative on the committee is strongly advocating an intricate garden with a tablet display of names etched in stone. Other committee members, including the governor’s representative and several artists, are advocating for a more traditional style memorial. The time is about two years after the 9/11 attacks and the United States is actively engaged in the “War on Terror” in Iraq and Afghanistan. Claire focuses on the garden design because she feels it best represents the ideals of her dead husband and also that it would be the most soothing place for her young son to visit. After much deliberation, the committee is swayed by Claire and the garden design is chosen. When the envelope identifying the winning designer is opened, the committee is aghast when it is apparent that the winner is an American born Muslim named Mohammad Kahn.
The committee searches for a way out of this conundrum. The Muslim won the competition fair and square, but the anticipated public relations nightmare has to be considered. The governor, who has national political ambitions, applies great pressure through her representative to squash the winner and move on to another design. Claire, as well as a majority of the committee members, feels that in the true American spirit Mohammad Kahn should remain the winner. Before the committee has a chance to solidify its position, the information regarding the winning design and its Muslim designer is leaked to the tabloid press. “The New York Post” has garish headlines the next morning decrying the committee’s selection.
The heat rises as victim family groups rally against the design (most specifically against the designer). Further complications ensue when the press implies that the design is borrowed from a Muslim tradition of paradise gardens, the memorial then actually becoming a symbol of victory for the terrorists rather than a tribute to the fallen Americans. The furor increases even further as Mo Kahn refuses to withdraw from the competition and also refuses to discuss the inspiration for his design or the implication that it represents the terrorists’ reward. He does this on the grounds that he would not be asked these questions if he were not in fact a Muslim. Once it is known that Claire was the main advocate for the garden memorial, victim families turn against her and threats are made. The situation escalates as the media sensationally fans the flames of fear, prejudice and hatred.
The story reaches a very unexpected climax, centered around one of the secondary characters. Asma Anwar is an illegal alien from Bangladesh, whose husband was a janitor in one of the World Trade Center towers and was also killed on 9/11. Asma, a Muslim, becomes the eye of the storm late in the book when she speaks out at a public hearing regarding the design. She makes an endearing statement regarding the memorial design, noting that this memorial was for her husband and family as well as for the American victims. When the press probes into her story and it becomes known that she received a seven figure victim family settlement from the United States government, outrage ensues.
The plot, obviously, is the backbone of this novel. The premise and resulting roller coaster ride of public opinion, reaction and backlash makes for a riveting read. The character studies which the author has included should not be over looked, though. The complexities of Mo Kahn, an American born Muslim who isn’t particularly religious and yet sticks to principles are very compelling. Claire Burwell is also a living contradiction, fiercely defending her choice of design initially but then bending to the enormous weight of public opinion and backlash and second guessing herself and her motives. The politicians play the situation for all of the publicity gains that they can, using the situation to further their aspirations. Asma Anwar actually becomes the most sympathetic character in the whole complicated story; something which I can’t help but think was intended by the author.
Ms. Waldman has created a novel which may be the novel that in 100 years people read to find out what was going on in the minds of Americans during the aftermath of 9/11, just as we now read Theodore Dreiser, Sinclair Lewis or John Steinbeck to understand what was going on in the minds of Americans in the early 20th Century. This is an incredibly entertaining read, but, more importantly, causes the reader to be introspective and analyze his or her own emotions, motives, prejudices and preconceived notions regarding the Muslim religion, religion in general, politics and media manipulation of our knowledge and opinion. I can’t recommend this book highly enough.