THE STREET SWEEPER by Elliot Perlman, Review: Remarkable

Epic in scope, Elliot Perlman’s The Street Sweeper is a remarkable feat of storytelling.

The Street Sweeper Elliot PerlmanThe Street Sweeper Synopsis:

How breathtakingly close we are to lives that at first seem so far away.

From the civil rights struggle in the United States to the Nazi crimes against humanity in Europe, there are more stories than people passing one another every day on the bustling streets of every crowded city. Only some stories survive to become history.

Recently released from prison, Lamont Williams, an African American probationary janitor in a Manhattan hospital and father of a little girl he can’t locate, strikes up an unlikely friendship with an elderly patient, a Holocaust survivor who was a prisoner in Auschwitz-Birkenau.

A few blocks uptown, historian Adam Zignelik, an untenured Columbia professor, finds both his career and his long-term romantic relationship falling apart. Emerging from the depths of his own personal history, Adam sees, in a promising research topic suggested by an American World War II veteran, the beginnings of something that might just save him professionally, and perhaps even personally.

As these men try to survive in early-twenty-first-century New York, history comes to life in ways neither of them could have foreseen. Two very different paths — Lamont’s and Adam’s — lead to one greater story as The Street Sweeper, in dealing with memory, love, guilt, heroism, the extremes of racism and unexpected kindness, spans the twentieth century to the present, and spans the globe from New York to Chicago to Auschwitz.

Genre: Literature, Historical, Drama, Mystery, Thriller

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The Street Sweeper by Elliot Perlman is a book that deserves every accolade it has received.

The Times (UK) described it as ‘harrowing, humane and brilliant’. The Guardian called it an epic, and said ‘Perlman offers an affecting meditation on memory itself, on storytelling as an act of healing’. But I think The Globe and Mail (Canada) best sums up my feelings about this novel:

The Street Sweeper reveals how individual people matter in history, how unexpected connections can change lives, and how the stories we hear affect how we see the world. It’s a tremendously moving work that deserves to be read and remembered.’

I was entranced by Seven Types of Ambiguity, and so was well aware of the authorial talents of Elliot Perlman. But the sheer scope of The Street Sweeper still surprised me. There is a story being told on countless levels. Perlman explores the nature of relationships between child and parent, romantic relationships and the importance of the relationship each individual has both with themselves and the society in which they live.

The Street Sweeper by Elliot Perlman is one of the most moving and memorable novels I have read.

When it comes to retelling the historical events that shaped his characters, the African American struggle for equal rights and the Holocaust, Perlman’s passion for research is on full display. While the subject matter is extremely confronting, so much so that a reading pause was required at times, the retelling of historical atrocities is done judiciously, always with a higher purpose in mind.

Perlman’s descriptions of his characters, such as Lamont Williams’ respect for Holocaust survivor Henryk Mandelbrot, are stirring.

With his wispy hair and frail body the man floated through all this or perhaps above all of it, like someone in a fantasy. If, sitting on a bus for instance, Lamont’s mind turned to the man, he appeared almost mythical, no more real than a creature of Ray Harryhausen’s making he remembered from childhood. But the old man in the bed in the ward was certainly real. And though his cancer was real too, he never seemed afraid. More than anything he had said to Lamont up to then, this was what was most seductive about time spent in this man’s company. No one else Lamont had spoken to since leaving prison had seemed so intoxicatingly unafraid.

In this description of the Holocaust survivors, Perlman shows how true the adage ‘the pen is mightier than the sword’ can be:

… they were more broken from their first-hand experience of what humans are able to visit on one another, more broken from their unasked-for and unusually refined understanding of life’s jagged extremes than perhaps any other collection of people on earth. Corralled again inside a camp, this one overseen by their liberators, they waited for a future almost as unimaginable to them as their recent past was to everybody else. Exhale too fast and you’d blow them over and with them their memories would spill out onto the very European ground their families now fertilised.

What makes reading about such confronting and painful subject matter a rewarding experience rather than depressing one?

In The Street Sweeper Elliot Perlman reminds us that beauty that can be found even in the darkest moments of despair and inspires us to be better people.

The macro stories being told in The Street Sweeper, that of the enduring strength of the human spirit and the power of the individual as a catalyst for change, are ultimately inspiring and uplifting. The poignancy of Perlman’s prose is at times unequalled.

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 its own that you can never know. It can capture you, corner you or liberate you. It can leave you howling and it can make you smile.

The Street Sweeper is one of those rare titles that did not just live up to my expectations, it surpassed them. I cannot recommend this book more strongly… from a literary standpoint, it is stunning, and the story’s gripping message, powerful for the individual and therefore powerful for society.

BOOK RATING: The Story 5 / 5 ; The Writing 5 / 5

Get your copy of The Street Sweeper from:

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About the Author, Elliot Perlman

Elliot Perlman is an Australian author and barrister. He has written three novels and one short story collection. Elliot’s debut novel Three Dollars won a number of awards, including the Age Book of the Year Award and the Fellowship of Australian Writers’ Book of the Year Award. Perlman co-wrote the screenplay for the film of Three Dollars, which received the Australian Film Critics’ Circle Award for Best Adapted Screenplay, as well as the A.F.I. Award for Best Adapted Screenplay. His collection of stories, The Reasons I Won’t Be Coming, and second novel, Seven Types of Ambiguity, are both international bestsellers. Perlman is the recipient of the Queensland Premier’s Award for Advancing Public Debate. His most recent book is The Street Sweeper.

This review counts towards my participation in the Aussie Author Challenge 2012.