The power of memory sits at the centre of Australian writer Elliot Perlman's The Street Sweeper, a superb multistrand epic that stretches across continents and over a century of history as it depicts racial prejudice and its consequences.
If it's not enough to focus on two events that could intimidate many writers – the Holocaust and the African-American civil-rights struggle – Perlman intertwines them in a way that brings out their similarities and renders them intensely personal. While he begins by zeroing in on two men, he draws in a large cast through an elaborate chain of their friends, family members, influences and other connections. Furthermore, he stays in full control of his material, creating a sprawling yet tightly woven book that aims high and succeeds.
The protagonists appear to have little in common except their presence in early 21st-century New York. Lamont Williams is an African-American ex-con falsely convicted of armed robbery. Desperate for a second chance, he takes a job as a janitor at a Manhattan hospital, praying to make it through the probationary period and to find his long-lost daughter.
While at work, Lamont forms an unlikely friendship with Henryk Mandelbrot, an elderly cancer patient with a foreign accent and an unusual arm tattoo. From him, Lamont learns about the Nazi death camps and their innumerable victims.
The story of Adam Zignelik, a history professor of Jewish heritage, unfolds in parallel. Because he hasn't done enough original research, Adam knows his tenure bid is hopeless. Depressed and feeling like a failure, he cuts loose his long-time girlfriend, which baffles her and devastates them both. Each holds on to mementos of the other that they can't make themselves discard.
Then the suggestion of a family friend, a black Second World War veteran, leads Adam to the archives of a Chicago university, where he finds a treasure trove of oral history that may revive his career. His research takes him in surprising directions, and each lead he unearths reveals new characters, each of whom has a gripping story that cries out to be heard.
It's fortunate that Perlman is a good teacher, because he does a lot of instruction to establish context. Within the space of three pages, we're swept from Emmett Till's murder to the 1963 Baptist church bombing in Birmingham, Ala., and into the mind of Elizabeth Eckford, one of the Little Rock Nine, as she arrives at Central High on the morning of integration. Adam's lengthy classroom lecture about Hitler's Germany alternates with scenes in which his department chair's wife tells her daughter about the Great Migration.
Once this whirlwind of exposition settles, about a third of the way in, the novel zips along and proves impossible to set aside. It demonstrates its structural brilliance as Adam's and Lamont's separate spheres begin to intersect. The plot moves from present to past, and from perspective to perspective, with ease and an ever-increasing urgency, building toward the resolution of what feels like a complex puzzle.
The text can be repetitive, circling back to the same ideas and phrases, but it serves a clever purpose. Perlman not only writes about mnemonic devices but makes good use of them himself. "Remember me," Mandelbrot tells Lamont Williams. "There is no one else like me." As he opens up about his life, Lamont echoes his words back to him: Olkusz, Poland, where he was born. Dabrowa Gornicza, the ghetto where he was sent. The Sonderkommando, the gas chamber staff he and other Jews were forced to join at Auschwitz. One often speaks of how historical novelists bring the past to life; Perlman does so in a way that ensures it won't be forgotten.
He spares his readers none of the trauma his characters experience, resulting in some excruciating scenes. This well-researched novel is based partly on real people's lives, which gives it added poignancy. There are moments of unremitting despair, but also of strength, unsung bravery and hope that arrives when all seems lost.
Although it fits within the realm of literary fiction, the prose employs an almost conversational style; the narrative chunks read as easily as the dialogue. While Perlman provides neatly wrapped endings for some of his subplots, he is also wise enough to leave some strands untied for realism's sake.
An extraordinary tale powerfully told, 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.
Sarah Johnson, an academic librarian and reader adviser, is an editor for the Historical Novel Society. She blogs at readingthepast.com.