Heinemann, £12.99, 299pp. £11.69 from the Independent Bookshop: 08430 600 030

The Submission, By Amy Waldman

Amy Waldman's novel begins in New York two years after 9/11, when a memorial is planned for the site of the fallen buildings. A committee which includes artists, a critic and Clare, whose husband died in the attack, select a design from the thousands of anonymous submissions. "The Garden" will be "a place where the widows, their children, anyone can stumble on in joy."

When the committee discover that the architect of this haven is one Mohammed Khan, their reactions are predictable: "Is he even American? What kind Muslim?" Clare, who had pushed for the Garden and remembers her dead husband as "an earnest liberal" whose credo was tolerance, insists that turning it down will be "a total betrayal of what this country means". She will change her mind several times but in the beginning she is the moral force in the group. The chairman thinks the public will never accept a Muslim's design, but the story is leaked before the decision can be revoked and the "healing garden" becomes a battleground.

Mohammed Khan turns out to be an American-born, non-practising Muslim. But this does not reassure the committee members or some of the families of victims, who begin to see a malign Islamic intention in his design, the Garden a paradise for martyrs. At a public hearing he is booed. Mohammed, a proud sensitive man who has suffered in small ways from the Islamophobia after 9/11, refuses to alter his design or withdraw the submission. When Asma, a Bangladeshi woman whose husband died in the Towers, speaks out in Mohammed's defence, public opinion seems shift until the press discovers that she is an illegal immigrant, yet another instance of a Muslim invasion.

In her first novel, Waldman does a credible job of showing the hysteria of the years following the attack and the role of the press in both revealing and distorting the truth. The title has a fine ambivalence; beyond the memorial contest, it suggests both the oppression of fear and prejudice, and humility – Islam's submission to God. She narrates through half a dozen voices, including the two main characters, Claire and Mohammed, who form an uneasy alliance, and Asma, whose bravery and good intentions destroy her.

The novel comes alive in the dramatic scenes when they are allowed to speak and think for themselves rather than represent a group or an opinion. But because Waldman attempts a broad inclusive view, the more minor characters often emerge as stereotypes: the wealthy Jewish banker with his social-climbing wife, the ambitious governor whose stand against the design has everything to do with her presidential ambitions, the rough but vulnerable Irish American whose fireman brother died in the Towers. What might work as a kind of talking-heads documentary can seem formulaic and shallow in fiction. The writing also suffers at times from Waldman's desire to cover all the ground and be fair to her characters. It can seem not so much journalistic as over-explanatory, with little left for the reader to discover.

The ending, set some 20 years later, is the most convincing and graceful part of the book, perhaps because it narrows the focus to two characters, Mohammed and Claire, and the unpredictable nature of their lives. Or three, if you count the Garden, finally realised in Mumbai, with its steel trees, its "rigorous geometry", and contemplative spaces and canals "fed by a reservoir revealed, as if it were the source of all life, by an open circle in the floor".

Arts and Entertainment

Filming to begin on two new series due to be aired on Dave from next year

TV

Arts and Entertainment
Kit Harington plays MI5 agent Will Holloway in Spooks: The Greater Good

'You can't count on anyone making it out alive'film
Arts and Entertainment
War veteran and father of Peter and Laust Thoger Jensen played by Lars Mikkelson

TVBBC hopes latest Danish import will spell success

Arts and Entertainment
Carey Mulligan in Far From The Madding Crowd
FilmCarey Mulligan’s Bathsheba would fit in better in The Hunger Games
Arts and Entertainment
Pandas-on-heat: Mary Ramsden's contribution is intended to evoke the compound the beasts smear around their habitat
Iart'm Here But You've Gone exhibition has invited artists to produce perfumes
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    'It was first time I had ever tasted chocolate. I kept a piece, and when Amsterdam was liberated, I gave it to the first Allied soldier I saw'

    Bread from heaven

    Dutch survivors thank RAF for World War II drop that saved millions
    Britain will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power - Labour

    How 'the Axe' helped Labour

    UK will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power
    Rare and exclusive video shows the horrific price paid by activists for challenging the rule of jihadist extremists in Syria

    The price to be paid for challenging the rule of extremists

    A revolution now 'consuming its own children'
    Welcome to the world of Megagames

    Welcome to the world of Megagames

    300 players take part in Watch the Skies! board game in London
    'Nymphomaniac' actress reveals what it was really like to star in one of the most explicit films ever

    Charlotte Gainsbourg on 'Nymphomaniac'

    Starring in one of the most explicit films ever
    Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi: The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers

    Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi

    The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers
    Vince Cable interview: Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'

    Vince Cable exclusive interview

    Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'
    Iwan Rheon interview: Game of Thrones star returns to his Welsh roots to record debut album

    Iwan Rheon is returning to his Welsh roots

    Rheon is best known for his role as the Bastard of Bolton. It's gruelling playing a sadistic torturer, he tells Craig McLean, but it hasn't stopped him recording an album of Welsh psychedelia
    Russell Brand's interview with Ed Miliband has got everyone talking about The Trews

    Everyone is talking about The Trews

    Russell Brand's 'true news' videos attract millions of viewers. But today's 'Milibrand' interview introduced his resolutely amateurish style to a whole new crowd
    Morne Hardenberg interview: Cameraman for BBC's upcoming show Shark on filming the ocean's most dangerous predator

    It's time for my close-up

    Meet the man who films great whites for a living
    Increasing numbers of homeless people in America keep their mobile phones on the streets

    Homeless people keep mobile phones

    A homeless person with a smartphone is a common sight in the US. And that's creating a network where the 'hobo' community can share information - and fight stigma - like never before
    'Queer saint' Peter Watson left his mark on British culture by bankrolling artworld giants

    'Queer saint' who bankrolled artworld giants

    British culture owes a huge debt to Peter Watson, says Michael Prodger
    Pushkin Prizes: Unusual exchange programme aims to bring countries together through culture

    Pushkin Prizes brings countries together

    Ten Scottish schoolchildren and their Russian peers attended a creative writing workshop in the Highlands this week
    14 best kids' hoodies

    14 best kids' hoodies

    Don't get caught out by that wind on the beach. Zip them up in a lightweight top to see them through summer to autumn
    Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi: The acceptable face of the Emirates

    The acceptable face of the Emirates

    Has Abu Dhabi found a way to blend petrodollars with principles, asks Robert Fisk