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".