By Elliot Perlman
Faber & Faber, £14.99
Elliot Perlman's Seven Types of Ambiguity, published in 2004, brought him enormous acclaim well beyond his homeland of Australia. His new novel, The Street Sweeper, will certainly be one of the books of the year. It contains a wide cast of characters, in America and later in eastern Europe, and moves back and forth in time between the mid-century and the present.
The central characters are two men: Lamont Williams, a black, hospital worker in New York, and Adam Zignelik, a struggling, Jewish academic at Columbia University. Both men's lives are in free fall. Lamont has just been released after six years in prison, is living with his grandmother and is desperate to find his young daughter. Zignelik is about to lose tenure, break up with his girlfriend and nothing is going right for him.
Lamont has just started working at Sloan Kettering, a cancer hospital, and meets an old Jewish patient, Henryk Mandelbrot, a Holocaust survivor. An unlikely bond emerges between the two men. Adam makes an unexpected discovery, in Chicago, in the dusty papers of a long-forgotten academic from the 1940s. This discovery will turn his life around.
At the centre of these stories is Perl-man's passion for modern history - in particular, the Holocaust, but also Black American history. The novel explores the fascinating relationship between Jews, blacks and American racism in the mid-20th century.
Adam's father, Jake, was a passionate champion of civil rights during the 1950s and '60s. The psychologist Henry Border (modelled on oral historian, David Boder) lives in Chicago with his young daughter and hires a black housekeeper. Her story, in turn, leads to accounts of violent racist riots in Detroit and racism in Chicago. Perlman has soaked himself in the research and brings the history of Jews and race in America and wartime Europe to life.
There are powerful scenes in the Warsaw Ghetto (with brief appearances by Janusz Korczak, Emanuel Ringelblum and Adam Czerniakow), Auschwitz, and the post-war DP camps. There is also one extraordinary, breathtaking moment later in the novel, but I shall not spoil it for you.
Perlman's writing has been described as Dickensian. A whole society is laid out, from university academics and oncologists to convicts, meat-packers and road-sweepers. The same range of human sympathy is there, too. The prose, though, hardly compares with Dickens. Few sentences sparkle on the page. But Perlman is a masterly storyteller and moves swiftly between a number of characters and their stories, keeping the reader in suspense throughout, culminating in a moving climax.
Several themes emerge through the novel. First, justice and forgiveness. Someone does something terrible during the course of the book. Who can forgive him? But who has earned the right to sit in judgment over people faced with painful choices? Secondly, memory. Academic historians, Holocaust survivors and civil rights campaigners all fight in the name of memory, so that past suffering should not be forgotten.
History in The Street Sweeper is never dry. It is always full of life and moving. Finally, Perlman's novel is full of families and orphans. When biological families founder and fathers fail their children, how can people come together in new families, which will sustain and help them build their lives anew? This is a book about devastating loss and suffering, and how people can nevertheless find hope. Some may find this too sentimental. Others will find it a triumph of modern storytelling.