Book Reviews

‘The best moments in reading are when you come across something - a thought, a feeling, a way of looking at things - which you had thought special and particular to you. And now, here it is, set down by someone else, a person you have never met, someone even who is long dead. And it is as if a hand has come out, and taken yours.’ Alan Bennett

“Many a book is like a key to unknown chambers within the castle of one’s own self.” ― Franz Kafka

Monday, 23 April 2012

The Street Sweeper - Elliot Perlman

''s a way of honouring those who came before us. We can tell their stories. Wouldn't you want someone to tell your story? Ultimately, it's the best proof there is that we mattered. And what else is life from the time you were born but a struggle to matter, at least to someone?'

This novel is a multi-layered collection of stories and of people that make up those stories, all deftly weaved together to create the many landscapes of lives that are depicted here.

Initially, the main characters are Lamont Williams and Adam Zignelik. Lamont has recently been released from prison after unwittingly being caught up in a crime, and is now working, for an intial six-month probationary period, as a hospital janitor in Manhattan, desperate to impress and anxious to stay out of trouble, and longing to be somehow reunited with his young daughter. During his work there, he begins a friendship with an elderly patient, a Jewish Holocaust survivor, and Lamont listens as the patient recounts his remarkable past.

Adam is a twentieth century political historian working at Columbia University, and he is also the son of a prominent Jewish civil rights lawyer. However, Adam's career has come to a standstill and he is doubting himself and his relationship. William McCray, also a civil rights activist and a long-term friend of Adam's late father Jake, suggests a possible topic that Adam might look into in order to revive his academic research.
 However, the stories about Lamont and Adam also develop to involve the stories of their families, their friends, of acquaintances, whose lives have all impacted on each other in some way, whose stories are also told, and which all come together to build a picture of so many lives, and make one amazing book.

The reader is taken on an extraordinary journey through the lives of the characters, from New York to Chicago in the present day, back in time to pre-WWII Warsaw, and to Auschwitz. The stories are absorbing, and the way the characters from the present and past become linked through time is wonderful. I felt the excitement and anticipation as Adam realises how important the material he has unearthed from the past could be; a 'once in a career' find. The novel is beautifully written throughout, but one moving passage particularly stood out to me, when Adam is looking through the material he has found, relating to survivors at a camp for displaced persons after WWII has ended, a place...

'...where a cacophony of sounds approximating a myriad languages jostled fiercely with each other from the mouths of disparate ages and origins who shared only that, en masse, 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 unusally 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.'

I can't recommend this novel highly enough. For me, it is an absolutely stunning read. It makes for difficult reading at times; it made me feel painfully sad, it made me angry, it brought me to tears. The very worst of humanity, the cruelties and discrimination of racism that man has inflicted upon his fellow man, is here for us to witness. There are also moments of joy, and humour, and some incredibly humane, caring people who offer hope. The characters came so vividly to life in my head as I was reading. I couldn't wait to pick this book up again and read some more. Parts of the novel were an education for me, and caused me to stop and think, and I went off to find out more about certain dates and events. The author has undertaken a huge amount of research to bring his story to us. I love how the layers build, the story moves forward and back in time, and it all added to my pleasure in reading this novel. Please don't let the length put you off. 

Ultimately, it is about individual stories and memories, about history and about humanity, and about how we as people touch each other's lives.

It is a rich, intelligent, important book. I would wholeheartedly recommend it.

Published on 16th February 2012 by Faber & Faber.

Thank you very much to Newbooks magazine for the opportunity to read and review this novel.



  1. I ordered this from the library last week after our little twitter conversation. I hope I enjoy it as much as you did.

    1. Ah great Jackie! I do hope you like it too. Thank you for commenting.

  2. Short stories is not my genre of choice but this sounds interesting, thanks for the review


    1. Thanks Lainy for commenting. It's not short stories - obviously me not explaining properly, but rather lots of stories brought together as a novel. Hope that makes sense.

  3. Oh my goodness Lindsay, I have wanted to read this book for ages!! I haven't read your review properly because I didn't want it to give away too much but I got the gist that you enjoyed this read - I'm so glad! Can't wait to one day get to it... my to-be-read list is so long :)

    Megan @ Storybook Love Affair

    1. I'm really glad that this one interested you Megan. I really liked this book a lot. I will read it again. I daren't even think how big my to-be-read list is anymore..


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