WHEN this novel arrived unheralded for review, I read the blurb on the back and couldn’t think of anyone who would be very keen to tackle what sounded like a lot of American navel-gazing angst, so I took it myself — the life of a books’ editor can be a hard one. In actual fact, this time, it was a pleasure.
Amy Waldman’s plot is premised on a simple idea: a couple of years after 9/11, a competition is held for a memorial to the victims. It is run anonymously and anyone can enter. There is a jury consisting of some artists, one representative of the bereaved families and various other worthies, and after debate and bickering, a design for a memorial garden is chosen. The envelope is opened, and the name of the designer is — Mohammad Khan. And so Islamophobia breaks loose.
The story unfolds in various strands: there is Claire Burwell, wealthy and middle class, widowed by the terror attack and the families’ representative on the original jury. She was a strong supporter of Khan’s design, but, as things develop, finds herself uncertain. Then there is Sean, whose brother was one of the firemen who died. He is none too bright, and is easily manipulated by those who want to use the furore for their own ends. And that is where the novel scores: as a view of a society where fault lines run deep and sound-bites and rabble-rousing overwhelm reasoned debate. And always in the background is Mo Khan himself. He is intensely ambitious, not particularly religious, not particularly likeable, although he deserves the reader’s sympathy, and ultimately unknowable. He doesn’t help his own cause, though why should he?
Despite painting a bleak picture of a society driven by xenophobia in the wake of the disaster, Waldman is ultimately upbeat. I felt her positive ending — a glimpse into a better future — was somewhat cursory, but it hardly mars what is an excellent and thought-provoking read.