The Submission – Book Review

“[…]The attack made everyone afraid of appearing unpatriotic, of questioning government leaders. Fear has justified war, torture, secrecy, all kinds of violations of rights and liberties. Don’t let it justify taking the memorial away from Khan. Everything these past couple of years has been about abdications. Don’t succumb to the fear; don’t mistake the absolutism of Khan’s opponents for morality…” -from The Submission, page 226 –

Two years after the 9-11 tragedy, a group of jurors has been selected to choose a memorial design to occupy the space where the twin towers once stood. The jurors include art critics and one family member still reeling from the death of her husband. The submissions are anonymous to the jurors – they have only the designs and no names to make their final decision. After a contentious process, one design is finally chosen and the name of the designer is finally revealed…Mohammad Khan, an American born Muslim. Khan’s selection ignites a firestorm of protest. Should a Muslim be allowed to design this memorial which touches the hearts of so many Americans? Does one’s religion define who they are? Thus begins Amy Waldman’s provocative and deeply emotional novel.

Told in multiple points of view, The Submission takes a searing look at one of the most traumatic events in American history and examines our prejudices and fears seated in religious ideology, patriotism, and collective grief. Claire Burwell, the lone family member on the jury, is a complex character who initially fights for Khan’s design. But political pressure and media propaganda work on her emotions, making her doubt her convictions. Khan himself is an enigmatic character – a man who doubts his religion and then discovers it matters not what he believes so much as the label attached to him.

What was he trying to see? He had been indifferent to the buildings when they stood, preferring more fluid forms to their stark brutality, their self-conscious monumentalism. But he had never felt violent toward them, as he sometimes had toward that awful Verizon building on Pearl Street. Now he wanted to fix their image, their worth, their place. They were living rebukes to nostalgia, these Goliaths that had crushed small businesses, vibrant streetscapes, generational continuities, and other romantic notions beneath their giant feet. Yet it was nostalgia he felt for them. A skyline was a collaboration, if an inadvertent one, between generations, seeming no less natural than a mountain range that had shuddered up from the earth. This new gap in space reversed time. – from The Submission, page 32 –

Waldman includes several engaging characters including a rabid journalist who is willing to twist the truth for a story, a power-hungry politician who finds the controversy is very good for votes, a radical anti-Islamic extremist, and a Muslim woman who is in America illegally and who is mourning her husband who worked as a janitor in the doomed towers.

This is an affecting novel which uses one question to propel its complicated plot. I found the title itself to be fascinating as it alludes to not only the design which is “the submission,” but also examines the process of judgement and the struggle for a common ground which unfurls throughout the novel. Synonyms for the word submission include: appeasement, assent, backing down, giving in, humility, resignation, and surrender. And, indeed, these are words which resonate in the story. Khan is forced to examine his motivations for submitting his design in the face of pressure to step down and give up the commission.

Waldman also explores creative inspiration. From where do our artistic renderings come? Is inspiration a simple process, or does it encompass experience, ideology and something less tangible which is difficult to define? Some characters in The Submission insist on labeling Khan’s design as anti-American and read intent where none may exist. Khan himself seems, at times, to wrestle with the origins of his work – what exactly was the inspiration?

The Submission is compelling fiction and would be a terrific book club choice. It was recently nominated for the Orange Prize for Fiction and I believe it deserves that nomination. Waldman writes with clarity and passion and challenges readers, especially Americans, to look deep within themselves about essential questions related to religion, politics and fear.

Highly recommended.

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FTC Disclosure: This book was sent to me by the publisher for review on my blog.

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  1. The word Islam means submission, as in submission to God.

      • Wendy on May 12, 2012 at 11:32

      Thanks for that, Bonnie – I wasn’t aware that Islam meant submission – and that too is thematically relevant in this novel.

      1. Exactly, and that’s why I told you its meaning, which I didn’t know until I read more about Islam when I started teaching Religions of the World.

  2. I can see why this would be a great book club choice – it sounds like it gives a lot of food for thought that would make a great discussion.

      • Wendy on May 12, 2012 at 11:33

      Kathy: I do think this is a book that book clubs will embrace. I could see people being strongly on one side or the other as to the central question the novel poses.

    • Megan on May 12, 2012 at 09:16

    I feel like I’ve seen really mixed reviews on this one, but yours makes it sound totally fascinating. I’ll definitely have to find myself a copy!

      • Wendy on May 12, 2012 at 11:34

      Megan: I didn’t read any reviews on this book until after I’d written mine – and I was surprised to see the range of reactions…although I do think that emotions are still very strong around this tragic event…even 10 years later.

    • Amy on May 12, 2012 at 10:01

    I am very curious about this book, even more so now because you found it to be a compelling book. The reviews are mixxed and many I’ve read are not in favor of this book. I have yet to read any of Waldman’s books but I read a magazine essay/articl she wrote and I really liked her writing style.
    The subject of this book is powerful and controversial and one that I think merits discussing. So many people in our society still aren’t sure what they think about Muslims and many are ill-informed.

    I wonder if the mixed reviews could, in some part, stem from the idea that people, even 10 + years since 9/11, still aren’t completely ready to confront the issues, think about and discuss them openly and honestly.

    This is a wonderful, thought-provoking review, Wendy. I’d like to be a fly-on-the-wall for a book club discussion!

      • Wendy on May 12, 2012 at 11:38

      Amy: As I mentioned to Megan (above) I was surprised at the range of reviews on this novel. Some really didn’t like it, some loved it. I do think the writing is excellent…and the subject matter is something that I believe makes people very uncomfortable. I think Waldman really challenges readers to look at their own feelings and prejudices…something some readers may not want to do. I read somewhere recently that nearly 75% of Americans would not be willing to vote for someone for President if they were of the Muslim religion…astonishing numbers and I think representative of some of the unwillingness to let go of our ignorance when it comes to this religion.

  3. This is on my shelf at home, just waiting to be read. It sounds like a powerful and thought-provoking novel and perfect for a book club discussion.

    • Laura on May 13, 2012 at 12:19

    I’ve seen the “range of reviews” you mentioned Wendy, and have been wondering whether to read this since I tend to shy away from “9/11 stuff”. But you know I love reading Orange Prize nominees! So I may get to it one of these days. Great review!

    • Susan on May 13, 2012 at 13:45


    I too have read and very much liked Amy Waldman’s The Submission — see my review here:

    I think it’s the best 9/11 novel I’ve read so far over the years and one worth reading. cheers.

    • pburt on May 13, 2012 at 19:30

    I to thought it was an exceptional book and three members of the book group felt it was the best book we have read – it led to an intense 90 minute discussion.

    I especially liked how the author humanized everyone (with the exception of the journalist) – we could see the basis for their points of view/

    Good review.

    • Athira on May 16, 2012 at 15:26

    I’m really looking forward to reading this one. I would normally shy away from books based on terrible tragedies but something about this one makes me want to read it.

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