If you’re going to write a 600 page book, in my humble opinion, you need to have two things: balls the size of watermelons and the talent to make me feel like I am reading a 200 page book. Elliot Perlman clearly has the balls – this is his second massive novel – and, having read Seven Types of Ambiguity
, I know the talent is there. Somehow, though, this one didn’t work so well for me.
This story centers around two men whose lives will eventually intersect. Lamont, a recently paroled man working as a hospital janitor and concerned with finding the young daughter no longer in his life, befriends a patient who is a Holocaust survivor committed to making sure the world doesn’t forget. Adam, meanwhile, is a Columbia history professor and the son of a legendary civil rights attorney whose professional life is so messy that it’s causing him to fuck up his personal life. Desperate to find a meaningful-but-publishable topic to save his career, he is intrigued when one of his late father’s colleagues suggests an investigation into the role that African American soldiers played in the liberation of the Nazi concentration camps and connections between the Civil Rights movement in the following decades. Digging into this leads Adam to a possibly significant historical find.
(Oh, by the way, that colleague’s son is now Adam’s boss at Columbia and is married to Lamont’s cousin Michelle.)
The problem for me was that Perlman went way too far into detail and the book was ultimately too laborious a read for me to let go and enjoy the way I wanted to. He bounced back and forth between Lamont’s story and Adam’s story, and repeated a lot of information in chapter three, for instance, that he’d given us in chapter one. I felt like he was trying to take on way too much, covering both the Holocaust and the Civil Rights movement – large swathes of the book ended up feeling like history lectures instead of a novel. In fact, most of chapter 4 was
a history lecture given by Adam to one of his classes on the topic “What is history?” Not that it wasn’t well written, I just felt like it didn’t do enough to move the story forward to justify how much of it there was.
The bouncing back and forth became a bit of a problem for me, too. In all honesty, that’s what made it feel like Perlman might have been taking on too much. After a point, the scenes began switching too rapidly, bouncing between Henryk telling Lamont about his experiences in Auschwitz, Michelle telling her daughter about the Great Migration, and William begging Adam to write a paper about his friend’s experience liberating Dachau. I feel like Perlman was doing this to demonstrate or reinforce the connections between historical events, but I genuinely felt that the plot of the story was lost in all of this. The most interesting parts of the plot didn't even kick in until I was close to 250 pages in and losing confidence. If I hadn't known that Ambiguities
was so good, I might have given up.
That being said, I really did appreciate the overall message of this book to honor the everyday people who help shape history and to ensure that history’s struggles aren’t forgotten. And there’s no doubt that Perlman writes beautiful prose, and that this book was meticulously researched – how many novels have an extensive bibliography at the end? I just really felt that the book would have been infinitely stronger and easier to lose myself in if he’d scaled back a bit.