By Leah Greenblatt
August 24, 2011 at 04:00 AM EDT

A memorial intended to honor the dead reveals much more about the living in Amy Waldman’s masterful debut novel The Submission — a scathing, dazzlingly crafted indictment of the messes people make when they mistake ideology for morality and bigotry for patriotism.

It’s two years after the events of 9/11, and a (fictional) high-profile committee has convened in Manhattan to select a monument that will transform the still-raw wound at Ground Zero into a safe haven of healing and remembrance. The winner, chosen from a pool of anonymously submitted blueprints, is a beauty: a walled garden whose spare geometry poetically echoes the fallen towers. And its designer? A brilliant young architect, Virginia-born and Yale-educated, named Mohammad Khan. Or as one dismayed committee member exclaims behind the doors of Gracie Mansion, ”It’s a goddamn Muslim!”

Within hours, a tabloid reporter has sniffed out the story, and so begins the ugly political do-si-do of a national scandal, one pushed along as much by personal agendas as by genuine outrage. Among the players: the hapless, overmatched committee head; two grieving widows, one wealthy and white, the other poor and Bangladeshi; and the black-sheep brother of a fallen firefighter. And at its center, of course, ”Mo” Khan himself: Wary and increasingly weary, he refuses all easy outs, even as he is tried and convicted in the kangaroo court of public opinion.

Waldman, an ex-New York Times bureau chief, unspools her story with the truth-bound grit of a seasoned journalist and the elegance of a born novelist. The Submission can be a painful read, but it’s never less than a gripping one. A-