Monday, April 9, 2012Posted by Melissa (Avid Reader)
by Amy Waldman
The premise is intriguing. A contest is held to select a design for a 9/11 memorial where the two towers stood. The winner, a design for a garden, is chosen anonymously, but once it has been selected, they realize the designer is Muslim and there is an immediate outcry from the public.
The cast of characters is diverse. There’s Paul, a Jewish lawyer who is in charge of the jury that selects the design for the memorial. Then we have Mohammad Khan, the architect whose design is chosen. He was born in Virginia and is an American. Asma is the widow of a man who was killed in the two towers on 9/11. She is living in America illegally, but her son was born in the USA.
Claire is also a 9/11 widow and is a member of the jury that selects the memorial design and is the garden’s earliest advocate. Alyssa is a reporter who continually weasels her way into each breaking story, throwing gas on the fire. Sean lost his brother on 9/11, but the tragedy has finally given him some focus in life. He now lends his time and energy to 9/11 causes.
The book’s greatest strength is that it shows the issue from such wonderfully different perspectives. Allowing the readers to see it from so many angles fleshing out the controversy and gives it real weight. We meet a wide variety of people from diverse walks of life. Seeing it through their eyes opens our own. Writing it this way is essential to make the story work. It becomes a stepping stone to open discussions instead of preaching one view point at us. There is no hero or villain, just people struggling with an impossible situation where emotions are raw with grief and everyone is tense.
The controversy isn't really about his design, it's about his religion. As one reporter thinks,
“No one cared about the design, didn’t her get that?”
I was really glad that Mo wasn’t turned into a saint that’s simply caught in the cross hairs. I thinks it’s important he feels like a real person, flawed, like anyone else, with selfish thoughts and a flaring temper. He’s a normal guy with ambitions. The only subplot I wasn't a fan of was Sean's. I felt like his whole story was weak and uninteresting.
For me, it was crucial that the book end the way it did. If it had ended in the midst of the pressure and stress of the situation, I don’t think it would have meant so much to me. I needed to know what the characters felt about the situation once they had some distance from it and they weren’t caught up in the fury of the events. I wanted to know what happened to Asma’s son and what he thought about what happened. Ending it 20 years later gave me closure and felt just right.
The book makes you wonder what you would do in this situation. It’s not black and white and there’s no clear right and wrong because there are so many feelings involved. One New Yorker (in the book) talks about his mind thinking one thing and his heart feeling another, he’s ashamed to feel suspicious, but he can’t help it. What is America if not a melting pot that defies labels? When you mix such incredibly different cultures together, you’re bound to have underlying prejudices based on centuries of feuds. The plot also makes you look at what your own assumptions about people are and it makes you question how easily you are swayed by sensational news coverage.
I think this is a wonderful book, one of my favorites so far this year. I don’t think this is a book that everyone will enjoy. It’s tense and political. I think you could also say it manipulates your emotions, but for me, it was excellent.
“‘It’s falling down, it’s falling down,’the nursery-rhyme words, then the mobile network went dead. ‘Hello? Hello? Honey?’ all around, then a silence of Pompeian density.”
“Jealousy clings to love’s underside like bats to a bridge.”
“… which had seemed so monumental at the time, had turned out to be only a small fragment of the mosaic of his life.”
“Perhaps this was the secret to being at peace: want nothing but what is given to you.”
Check out Brenna's great review at Literary Musings here.
p.s. This book was considered for the United We Read committee I'm on. They ruled it out, ironically, because there was concern that it would be too upsetting and people might be offended by its contents. While I understand the concern, it was still disturbing to realize the book was being ruled out for the very issue it was discussing.
p.p.s. The memorial Mohammad designs reminded me so much of a Holocaust memorial I saw at a Jewish synagogue in Budapest (seen in the photo above). It was a huge weeping willow tree made of metal and each leaf held the name of someone who had died. It was incredibly moving and I kept thinking of it while I was reading the book.
Holocaust photo from here.