The Street Sweeper by Elliot Perlman: review by Toni Whitmont

by |July 26, 2011

It is not often that a book give 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 (which will be published in October and is available to pre-order here), 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 a trawl through human depravity. 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.

Pre-order your copy of The Street Sweeper from Booktopia, Australia’s No.1 Online Bookshop – click here

From the publisher:

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.

Pre-order your copy of The Street Sweeper from Booktopia, Australia’s No.1 Online Bookshop – click here


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