The remarkable new novel from one of Australia’s finest writers.
From the scars of the civil rights struggle in the United States to the crematoria of Auschwitz-Birkenau, there are even more stories than there are people passing each other every day on the crowded streets of any major city. Only some of these stories survive to become history.
Adam Zignelik, an almost 40-year-old untenured academic historian at New York's Columbia University, is the son of a prominent American civil rights lawyer and an Australian mother. One of his late father's closest friends had been the African American civil rights activist, William McCray. Since the death of Adam's parents it is the McCray family - William, his son Charles (Chair of History at Columbia) and Charles' wife - that has become Adam's adopted family.
With Adam's career and his relationship with his long-time girlfriend in crisis, he gets a suggestion for a promising research topic from William McCray, who is a World War II veteran, that just might save him professionally and even personally.
Entirely fortuitously, Charles McCray's wife's cousin, Lamont, recently released from prison and working as a hospital janitor, strikes up an unlikely friendship with a patient, an elderly Jewish Holocaust survivor and former member of the Sonderkommando (those prisoners forced to work in the gas chambers and crematoria of the Nazi extermination camps).
Two very different paths - Adam's and Lamont's - lead to one greater story as The Street Sweeper, in dealing with memory, racism, genocide and the human capacity for guilt, resilience, astonishing heroism and unexpected kindness, spans the 20th Century to the present and the globe from New York to Melbourne, Chicago, Warsaw, Berlin and Auschwitz.
Praise for Elliot Perlman:
‘Perlman has a rare gift for keeping the pages turning while never giving up on his vision of an encompassing and incisive social satire... the Aussie equivalent of the Franzens, Roths, and, yes, Austens of the world’ -- ELLE
‘Perlman’s power is in conveying the strife between personality and character in each of his protagonists. His prose, like his story itself, is vivid, humane, and finally optimistic in a manner that strengthens the reader’s perceptiveness’ -- HAROLD BLOOM
‘Perlman writes with such convincing simplicity - his sentences read like whiskey-fueled confessions - that you can’t help but imagine being locked in a room with his characters, devising a plan to palliate their woes’ -- ESQUIRE
About the Author
Elliot Perlman is the author of the award-winning novel THREE DOLLARS (Victoria’s favourite book, as voted by Victorians, and which was also a feature film starring David Wenham and Sarah Wynter), THE REASONS I WON’T BE COMING (a collection of award-winning stories), and the novel SEVEN TYPES OF AMBIGUITY. He is published in 20 countries, to glowing reviews. All of his books have won awards here and overseas, and all three of his books have been bestsellers in Australia and internationally. He is hailed as the ‘Zola of Australia’ in France. He lives in Melbourne.
I don't know how to say this any more succinctly. Elliot Perlman's The Street Sweeper is a brilliant book. I have read it twice, I got a whole lot more out of it the second time around, and I can't back it strongly enough.
Here is my review:
It is not often that a book gives me goosebumps but by the second page of The Street Sweeper I was covered in them. I had an inkling on page one with the opening paragraph.
Memory is a wilful dog. It won't be summoned or dismissed but it cannot survive without you. It can sustain you or feed on you. It visits when it is hungry, not when you are. It has a schedule all of its own that you can never know. It can capture, corner you or liberate you. It can a leave you howling and it can make you smile.
A page later I knew I was in the hands of a master - someone whose deliberately crafted prose, stunning ability to weave a story, intelligently thought through issues leaves the reader humbled, in a state of grace, in awe.
I don't know about his career as a barrister, but in his writing, Elliot Perlman has rarely hit a wrong note. Known for Three Dollars, and then for the very satisfying Seven Types of Ambiguity, The Street Sweeper will certainly cement the reputation of man already described as having "traces of Dickens' range and of George Eliot's generous humanist spirit" by the New York Times. France's Lire describes him as "one of the 50 most important writers in the world".
In this latest novel, Perlman's range is dazzling and his humanist spirit is profound. This is not to say that he can't tell a damn good story. The Street Sweeper is a remarkable tale that takes us back and forward in time, from contemporary New York to pre-war Poland, from the awful events leading up to the civil rights movement in America to suburban Melbourne. His novel is rich in detail, meticulously plotted, cleverly constructed, with often shimmering prose. What stands out to me however, is the deliberateness of his approach. Here is a man with a lot to say about memory, responsibility, consequence, respect, history, legacy, connection, witness, and yet here is a man who is never didactic or polemic. It is liked being whipped by a feather duster.
The Street Sweeper would be easily dismissed as another Holocaust book, and there is certainly somewhat of an industry these days in awful tales of human madness all set in Nazi dominated Europe. Granted the scenes in The Street Sweeper set in Auschwitz are both harrowing to read, and pivotal to the story. But the book is so much more than that. This book has bigger concerns, and is in fact, wonderfully uplifting. I came away with a profound sense of peace and connection. I can't recommend this book highly enough.
Want to know what books Elliot Perlman read as a child (and they will surprise you)?
Go here for his answers to our Ten Terrifying Questions.
Paroled felon Lamont Williams, who works as a street sweeper while looking for his lost daughter, befriends a dying man who survived the Holocaust. Meanwhile, foundering professor Adam Zignelik discovers a cache of recordings that recall a horrific past and hopes that bringing it to light will bring him acclaim. Their stories meld, even as current forces—e.g., the Civil Rights Movement—inevitably shape their fate. Australian writer Perlman has been on my radar since his multivalenced Seven Types of Ambiguity; his latest will be sought out by serious readers everywhere.
"An expertly told novel of life in immigrant America--and of the terrible events left behind in the old country."
--Kirkus Reviews (starred review)
"Brilliantly makes personal both the Holocaust and the civil rights movement.... A moving and literate page-turner."
--Publishers Weekly (starred review)
"Perlman's compulsively readable wrestle-with-evil saga is intimate and monumental, wrenching and cathartic."
--Booklist (starred review)
"In the best kind of books, there is always that moment when the words on the page swallow the world outside -- subway stations fly by, errands go un-run, rational bedtimes are abandoned -- and the only goal is to gobble up the next paragraph, and the next, and the next.... [The Street Sweeper is] a towering achievement: a strikingly modern literary novel that brings the ugliest moments of 20th-century history to life, and finds real beauty there."
"A sprawling work, generous in its spirit and in breadth of imagination, unabashed in its liberal humanism."
"A rich, engaging story of New York. [Perlman is] an author of rare erudition and compassion. The Street Sweeper is his boldest work yet and, quite probably, the one that will win him a greater following."
--"The Washington Post"
Number Of Pages: 576
Published: 3rd October 2011
Publisher: Random House Australia
Dimensions (cm): 23.3 x 15.9 x 4.4
Weight (kg): 0.7