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The Street Sweeper - Elliot Perlman

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Genre: Fiction / Author: Elliot Perlman / Paperback / 576 Pages / Book is published 2012-02-16 by Faber and Faber

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      20.03.2012 17:53
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      Historical fiction at its very worst.

      PRICE: £7.94 on Amazon.

      THE STORY: There are a number of characters whose stories populate the book (more on that later). As an overview, there is:

      Lamont Williams - a poor black man who, having served six years for a crime he didn't commit, secures a job (via a back-to-work scheme for ex convicts) at the Sloan Kettering Cancer Hospital in New York. His main objective is to get through a six month probationary period and be offered permanent employment which, he hopes, will strengthen his position in trying to find his 8 year old daughter, whom he lost touch with whilst he was inside.

      Henryk Mandelbrot - an elderly Jewish patient whom Lamont befriends when they meet at Sloan Kettering. After his shifts are over, Lamont visits Mr Mandelbrot who tells him his life story and, in particular, shares the horrors of his time in Auschwitz with Lamont.

      At the same time, Adam Zignelik, an untenured professor of history at Columbia University, is facing both a personal and professional crisis. With no new ideas for a history thesis or book, he faces losing his position at the university and, in turn, this drives a self-imposed wedge between himself and his long-term partner, Diana. Yet, even his close friend Charles (who is chair of the history department) cannot assist with his flailing career. During this time, Charles' father gives Adam the idea to research the involvement of black troops in the liberation of Dachau concentration camp, leading Adam on a journey from New York to Chicago and then back to his home town of Melbourne, Australia and -finally - back to New York. Via this research, he becomes immersed in the work of a psychologist, Dr Border, who, immediately after WW2, went out to interview Holocaust survivors ...

      MY VIEW: So, from a top line overview, it seems there would be a lot to this novel (and I have barely touched on the half of it re the connections between characters) and, at first, it seems as though there is. It would appear there's going to be a strong and compelling story linking the Black Civil Rights movement with that of Jewish immigrants and, as a reader (and being Jewish too), I was waiting for all this to come together. Unfortunately, it never did.

      From very early on, this book came across as though a historian was writing a novel - rather than a novelist was writing about history. I've read numerous historical novels in the past, I'm interested in history and I'm downright fascinated by certain periods. However, I would never pick up a history textbook, nor do I choose to read historical non-fiction. Yet this is how I felt reading the Street Sweeper. In my view, history is best brought to life via showing (not telling) and a well written historical novel really can make a reader feel as though they've stepped back in time. However, Perlman commits one of the worst sins (in my humble opinion) that an author is capable of - he preaches to his reader. This is a long book (at 600 pages) so I gave it the benefit of the doubt and stuck with, even when Adam Zignelik regaled his students with a 'What is History' lecture. I stuck with it through the sometimes dry, textbook-like account of court cases which strove to ensure equal rights for black school children. And, by the time I was ¾ of the way though and it hadn't improved, I stuck with it just to see if there would be some great revelation. There wasn't.

      Perhaps the strongest part of the book was the third-person account of Henryk Mandelbrot's time at Auschwitz. It was only then, for a short period, that the author managed to immerse the reader in the actual history of a time and place.

      What really bothered me about this book, however, was the way the author would frequently weight the prose as though some huge revelation were about to be made, lending a significance to the text that just wasn't there. For example, when Adam plays an answerphone message: 'It was a woman's voice, a familiar one, and it cut through him before he'd had a chance to listen to its words or even place the voice. But the fourth word was her name'. WOW, you think, WHO IS IT? WHAT PORTENTIOUS MESSAGE COULD THIS BE? IS IT A LONG-LOST WHOEVER? IS IT A NEW AND SIGNIFICANT CHARACTER? No, it's just Adam's friend Michelle. Or how about: 'A man and a woman were about to meet casually, but by arrangement for a coffee...' Yup, it's Adam meeting Michelle again. Now, at page 323 of 617 (on my Kindle edition), I'm just thinking, 'Get on with it'. The writing did not need to be weighted in this way. Good writing should vary its tone and pace throughout (and it never did in this novel). At this point, 'Adam and Michelle had arranged to meet for a coffee' (or something along those lines) would have sufficed.

      The book jumped around far too much for my tastes too. Usually I love a novel which focuses on different characters' viewpoints and experiences, leaving you on a cliff-hanger until you get to catch up with them later in the book. However, the jumping around in this novel just didn't lend any structure or significance to the book. No character was particularly well developed - nor given the time to develop (especially with all the fact-stuffing going on around them). I honestly felt that the characters were a means to an end - a way for the author to talk about the historical bits and bobs he wanted to get in there. None of them were brought to life for me - apart, perhaps, from Lamont; but the author wasted an opportunity in respect of this character too.

      Finally, one of the last nails in the coffin for me was the sheer unrelenting and unbelievable scale of coincidence which occurred throughout this book. It irked me that, on the one hand, Perlman subjected me to a textbook-like take on history yet, on the other hand, called on me to suspend my disbelief in such an astounding manner. Now, I'm all for a good tie-up or coincidence in a novel - but this just took it to extremes. Perhaps, if I were to be more literary in my analysis, Perlman was seeking to show the fundamental interconnectedness between all things. The main theme of the book, undoubtedly, is 'tell everyone' - but I do think Perlman's somewhat missed the boat in this respect. The Holocaust has been well documented - both in historical texts and in literature. There are other novels about the Holocaust which have moved me more and, for that matter, said more. This 'tell everyone' theme might have had more pull had a novel such as this been written soon after the war - but as a reader, I struggled to believe that the cancer patient Mandelbrot had to rely on a random hospital worker (Lamont) to finally get his message out. Also, the historical significance of black troops at the liberation of Dachau sort of petered out - if you're expecting to learn something historically significant, then don't hold your breath. One other character was brought in, given sufficient page-space for you to think that it was going somewhere, then fell by the wayside. There was just too much content (the kitchen sink of history, if you like) and not enough focus on one or two specific areas to lend the novel the depth and gravitas I suspect Perlman was seeking.

      Added to this, the one story line I wanted to see resolved (and I won't give anything away by telling you what it is) actually wasn't. I mean, come on Perlman - surely you could have popped in one final coincidence to tie that up.

      I ended the book feeling I hadn't truly been taken into the history of the Civil Rights movement in the way I'd hoped for, I hadn't really been immersed in the Holocaust experience either, nor had I grow to love or get behind any of the main characters. But this is what happens when an author over-populates a novel and then layers a mishmash of history on top.

      CONCLUSION: What had promised to be a deep, well-plotted account of the Civil Rights movement and the Holocaust - demonstrating the role of black soldiers during the liberation of concentration camps - fell way short. If a chain of character-based coincidences (combined with an historical fact-dump) is your idea of a compelling plot line, then you may well love this book. However, if you want a 'plot' to serve as more than just a conduit for churning out historical facts, then save yourself the 600-odd page read.

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