I've been working on this for a while but just never gotten around to finishing it up. It's hard for me to distill what I love about a book into a single post and not spoil the story in the process. I sometimes feel as though everyone should have read everything that I've read already so that I can just talk about them!
The novel is set ten years after 9/11 and centers around the efforts to design and build a memorial on the site where the towers once stood. The decision has been made to have the memorial chosen by jury, through an anonymous contest. When the book begins the jury has whittled the choices down to two.
The Void: "There was nothing void-like about it. A towering black granite rectangle, some twelve stories high, centered in a huge oval pool, it came off in the drawings as a great gash against the sky. The names of the dead were to be carved onto its surface, which would reflect into the water below."
and The Garden: "The concept was simple: a walled, square garden guided by rigorous geometry. At the center would be a raised pavilion meant for contemplation. Two broad, perpendicular canals quartered the six-acre space. Pathways within each quadrant imposed a grid on the trees, both living and steel, that were studded in orchard-like rows. A white perimeter wall, eighteen feet high, enclosed the entire space. The victims would be listed on the wall's interior, their named pattered to mimic the geometric cladding of the destroyed buildings. The steel trees reincarnated the buildings even more literally: they would be made from their salvaged scraps."
The jury, composed of artists, architects, historians and political appointees, is divided almost evenly between the two designs. Ariana, a self-important artist and critic, is set on the Void. Claire, the only family member of one of the victims on the jury, feels that it is too dark, too obscure, to bring anything to the families for whom the memorial will mean the most. She wants the Garden. She has promised her son the Garden - a place where he can go to find something of the father he has lost.
The two women lobby among the other jurors and then a final vote is taken.
Claire wins out and the Garden is chosen as the design for the memorial. Then, the reading of the winning architects name: Mohammed Khan.
The novel is told from multiple points of view, though the two main storytellers are Claire and Khan himself. From the moment that his name is revealed, there are people who want him to withdraw or be disqualified as 'unsuitable' for no reason other than that he is a Muslim. The story is 'accidentally' leaked to the press before the jury can decide what to do - Claire says that he won, so he won but others look at it from a wider point of view, anticipating the public reaction to a memorial built by a Muslim on that site.
I have to say, one of the things I like best about this novel is that none of the characters are innocent. They're not bad people, though an exception for me would be the leader of Save America From Islam (SAFI), Debbie Dawson. She's a representative of the real world anti-Islamic hate groups.
Claire, who starts out as a staunch supporter of the Garden and Khan 'no matter what', finds herself the target of the anger of some of the other families. She begins to question whether it's worth it, whether what the people are saying about Khan might be true. All she wants, at the core of things, is to be able to give her children something of their father to hold on to.
"As she walked to the front door from her car, she spotted what looked like a homeless man's encampment beneath the copper beech. Moving closer, she saw, in the milky light cast by house and moon, a box of Raisin Bran ("Daddy's favorite," she told the children, although she was no longer sure that Cal had loved Raisin Bran, only that saying so got William and Penelope to eat it); a pile of books pillaged from Cal's study; a stray tennis racket; his $2,000 wedding tuxedo - all of it arranged around the cairn. A child's necromancy; William believing he could coax the stones to life, or his father home."
Khan, who is a victim not only of the prejudice and cruelty of the people around him, but also of his own hubris and refusal to bend. He is not combative, precisely, but he is ambitious and willing to betray the trust of his closest friend in order to get the recognition that he deserves. He is saved from being only an overly ambitious artist by the fact that he does none of it out of cruelty. Or if he does, it's more like a child's unthinking need to be recognized than any sort of adult viciousness.
Sean, one of the family members opposed to the Garden once Khan's name is revealed, does some of the worst damage in the novel. He attacks a Muslim woman at a protest, yanking on her hijab and setting off a wave of similar attacks throughout the city. He comes off as petty, from the outside, but in the sections of the novel told from his point of view you come to see that he is a man whose life was destroyed long before the Tower's fell. He gained a purpose in life that day - taking the place of his older brother who was killed - but that purpose is wearing on him. He disappoints his mother simply by being himself, by not being Patrick and he spends most of the novel, you come to understand, flailing around, trying to find something to hold on to.
"His brother, Patrick, was somewhere here and Sean was conscious of wanting, a little too much, to be the one to find him, and of fearing he might not recognize him if he did. They hadn't seen each other in months, and Sean kept trying to call up Patrick's face, only to realize, as they came upon damaged bodies, that the faces of memory and death might not match."
The language of the novel is so wonderfully rich. There are some books that you feel as though they have so much weight that they should be real. For me, this is one of those. It's painful in places, to read about the blindness and anger that so many of the characters carry - born of the pain of loss for so many of them, and know that it is so true to life.
One of my favorite passages comes from Zahira, the woman whose hijab Sean yanked in an attempt to make himself relevant:
""Really?" Zahira said. "I thought it was just a garden. Honestly, Sean, even if it has elements in common with traditional Islamic gardens, that doesn't mean it's a paradise. And if he were consciously trying to invoke the afterlife, how do you know he's trying to encourage terrorists? For all you know he's reminding Muslims that we'll never reach paradise if we do what they did. Why is my theory any more far-fetched than yours?"
"Sean had no answer. She went on: "But for me, no architect can create paradise. Only God can. When Muslims think about paradise, the hope we feel about getting there, the exhilaration at the possibility - it's not about trees, or silks, or jewels, or beautiful women or boys or whatever you've been led to believe. It's about God. God. The description of paradise in the Quran is just a way to convey to our limited imaginations the ecstasy we will feel in God's presence. That's what should inspire us to live correctly.""