28 January 2008

Cynthia Ozick, The Shawl, 1989

The two linked stories included in The Shawl were not combined into a unitary edition until 1989, having both first appeared in The New Yorker earlier in the 1980s. The first story is ‘The Shawl’ which, in a mere two thousand highly succinct words, is calculated to deliver a short, sharp shock of the first order, describing the plight of Rosa Lublin, a Polish teenage mother and concentration camp inmate who witnesses the murder of her daughter Magda by a Nazi camp guard.

It might have been a self-contained if very bleak tale, had not Cynthia Ozick, a recognised American ‘lady of letters’, capped it with a more sympathetic but no less saddening portrait in the second story, ‘Rosa’. Now living in Miami, Florida, it is immediately clear Rosa lost more than her child that day fifty years before, there are aspects of herself that she has sadly also not been able to recover. With an internal life that is far richer than the actual life she lives out, Rosa writes letters to her late daughter, convincing herself that Magda has grown into a wise and worldly woman, while herself hiding this secret life from others by simply stating, more realistically, that thieves took her life. Like the shawl that once held Magda, memories of Magda herself seem to have become the shawl that Rosa uses to protect her permanently damaged psyche from the reality of a daughter and life stolen from her. There are tormented psychological depths here sketched out but to my mind not fully explored, instead going for a more distilled portrait of personal pain and inner despair, making it a book probably best approached with some trepidation.  PY


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