The Street Sweeper by Elliot Perlman
On the crowded streets of New York City there are even more stories than there are people passing each other every day… only some of these stories survive to become history. Lamont Williams, recently released from prison and working as a hospital janitor, strikes up an unlikely friendship with a patient, an elderly Jewish Holocaust survivor who starts to tell him of his extraordinary past. Meanwhile Adam Zignelik, the son of a prominent Jewish civil rights lawyer, is facing a personal crisis: almost 40-years-old, his long-term relationship is faltering and his academic career has stalled. It’s only when one of his late father’s closest friends, the civil rights activist William McCray, suggests a promising research topic that the possibility of some kind of redemption arises. Dealing with memory, racism and the human capacity for guilt, resilience, heroism, and unexpected kindness, The Street Sweeper spans over fifty years, and ranges from New York to Melbourne, Chicago, Warsaw and Auschwitz, as these two very different paths – Adam’s and Lamont’s – lead to one greater story.
When a rep from Faber & Faber publishers brought a copy of The Street Sweeper into work for one of my colleagues, he proclaimed it was one of the best books he’d ever read. About a week later, after my colleague had finished it, she said exactly the same. I quickly requested a copy of my own, desperate to find out for myself just what makes this novel rank so highly.
It took Elliot Perlman six years to write and research this novel, and I’m honestly not surprised. The Street Sweeper spans right from the American civil war, to the holocaust during World War II, and right through to New York and Australia in the present day. It is a huge undertaking of a novel, that really makes you realise not just how important it is to recognise and learn from our history, but also how important it is to just preserve our history.
Adam Zignelik, the son of a Jewish civil rights lawyer, has been talked into taking on a new research project by one of his father’s closest friends, the civil rights activist William McCray. The aim of the project is to find proof that black troops were present at the liberation of the Dachau concentration camp, the first concentration camp opened by the Nazis in Germany. But this research project leads Adam to making a discovery he never saw coming; some of the first, first-hand oral recordings from holocaust survivors. As he digs even further, we begin to learn more about the man who made these recordings and how his discoveries became buried in a university cupboard, almost never to be found. These are all based on real events that Perlman has researched, and some of the recording transcripts are extremely heartbreaking to read, but undeniably important.
The other side of the novel is all about Lamont Williams, a black man recently released from prison, trying to make it through his six month probation period of working at a cancer treatment hospital. It is here that he meets a patient, Henryk Mandelbrot, a holocaust survivor. The two form an unlikely friendship as Henryk begins to tell Lamont the story of his life, on the condition that he must remember every word of it. Henryk was without a doubt my favourite character, and hearing about his life (also based on a real person), was for me, the most interesting part of the novel.
You may think you have already read countless novels on the holocaust before, and seen many a film on it too, but one thing I can guarantee you is that you’ve never read it the way it’s told in The Street Sweeper. It is an unflinchingly honest account that doesn’t shy away in any form. It will leave you wanting to put it aside for an hour or so whilst you gather your thoughts together until you feel like you’re able to carry on. It is upsetting, it is unbearable, but it is important. As much as I found some parts incredibly difficult to read, I felt as though I had to go on, as though I owed it to these people to know the truth, to remember it, and to tell someone else about it. If we try to repress and block out all the bad things in our history then how will we ever hope to learn from it? A few of the holocaust survivors in the recordings are quoted as saying “tell everyone what happened here,” and that is exactly what it made me want to do. I was constantly turning to my partner and reading passages out to him, because as awful as it all is, these people lived through these horrors, and it can never be forgotten.
The most horrifying parts are when we learn of Henryk being forced to work in the gas chambers, forced to lead his fellow Jews to slaughter without saying a word, without giving even a hint of what is to come. His various jobs in the gas chambers are described at length, and he tells it just like it was, like it deserves to be told.
Some of you are probably already writing this novel off as something you couldn’t read, others of you are probably increasingly intrigued. I can understand why people shy away from these things, because we know it’s not fiction, we know these things actually happened and how truly awful they were. But I think we need to be brave when it comes to novels like this, as The Street Sweeper really is one of the most important historical novels you will ever read, and I can’t thank Perlman enough for dedicating so much time to the research behind it, for bringing the truth to light, and for writing it in such a way as to make it accessible to those, like me, who primarily read fiction.
So is it one of the best books I’ve ever read? I’m still unsure on this one. It is undoubtedly a superb novel, one that had me constantly wanting to read on, and had me thinking for many days after. But I don’t think it’s without its faults either. The most obvious one is that it is far too long. I think there were some historical details that just didn’t need to be in there, making it sometimes feel like an actual non-fiction history book. Some of the chapters are weighed down by the factual information and I did at times find these hard to get through. The novel is at its best when it is left to one of the characters, such as Henryk, to tell his story, allowing the reader to fully connect and empathise with them. My other criticism is Perlman’s style of writing at times. The constant flitting between present and past is often confusing, and his need to constantly remind the reader of particular details when he starts talking about certain characters again is particularly irritating. However, looking back on the novel, these faults are only minor ones, and I felt that what I actually got out of the novel far outweighed the negatives.
The Street Sweeper is a book that deserves to be read and remembered. It is a novel about history, and the importance of remembering it and re-telling it for years to come. It is a novel about race and religion and all the connotations that come with being a black man, or being a Jew, or even why it would appear odd to some for a black man and Jew to become friends. There is so much in this novel, it’s virtually impossible to mention it all in this review. I have learnt so much from this novel, and I already know I’ll never forget it. Some things just can’t be forgotten…
The Street Sweeper is out now, published by Faber & Faber. A huge thank you goes to the publisher for providing me with a copy for review.
- The Street Sweeper by Elliot Perlman: review (telegraph.co.uk)
- The Street Sweeper, By Elliot Perlman (independent.co.uk)
- The Books Interview: Elliot Perlman (newstatesman.com)