‘Mountains bow down to this grief / But hope keeps singing from afar.’ Russian poet Anna Akkmatova’s words are used to great effect as the epigraph to The Street Sweeper, the new novel from best-selling Australian author Elliot Perlman. The ‘grief’ in the novel includes the Holocaust and the US civil rights movement, but, says Elliot, "it’s an unequivocally good story".
The Street Sweeper is an epic tale of memory, racism, the human capacity for guilt, resilience, heroism and unexpected kindness, brought to life in the stories of two men struggling to survive in the 21st Century as they stumble upon stories of survival from the 20th Century.
Lamont Williams is an African American hospital janitor, on probation from prison, who meets an elderly cancer patient who survived the Holocaust. A few kilometers away, an untenured historian, Adam Zignelik, is fighting to save both his job and his relationship, while trying to emerge from the shadow of his civil rights activist father.
"It’s about civil rights, black and Jewish history, and additionally about parents and children," says Elliot, 47. "And there are at least three love stories in there, too."
Detailing how close we are to lives that at first seem so far away, The Street Sweeper examines how there are more stories than people passing each other every day on the bustling streets of every crowded city. Elliot, speaking from Perth where is he is currently touring the book, explains that the inspiration came from his time in New York.
"I lived directly opposite the cancer hospital where Lamont works. It takes up a whole city block. There’s a saying that New York is a microcosm of the world, well this hospital is like a microcosm of New York. I used to see patients, visitors, administrators coming and going, waiting outside - the whole world was spilling out onto the street.
"I observed these people coming into contact with each other and that became the starting point of the novel - what if an unlikely friendship were to blossom between two people who meet who statistically shouldn’t meet?"
And there was another, more personal reason for writing the novel. "I have a personal connection because I’m Jewish and I don’t remember a time when I didn’t know about the Holocaust. My parents came from Poland and Russia to Australia - if they hadn’t, I wouldn’t be here now. It’s been such a part of my consciousness that I knew that, sooner or later, I would write about it."
Elliot Perlman will discuss The Street Sweeper at the London Jewish Cultural Centre, Ivy House, North End Road, Golders Green on Tuesday, March 6 at 7.30pm. Details: 020 8457 5000, www.ljcc.org.uk.