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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

The Shawl

Cynthia Ozick

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To purchase The Shawl

Title: The Shawl
Author: Cynthia Ozick
Genre: Fiction
Written: (1989)
Length: 70 pages
Availability: The Shawl - US
The Shawl - UK
The Shawl - Canada
Le châle - France
  • Contains the stories The Shawl and Rosa, both written in 1977 but first published in The New Yorker in the early 1980s.
  • Both stories were included in volumes of the annual Best American Short Stories
  • Both stories were awarded first prize in the annual O. Henry Prize Stories collections

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Our Assessment:

A- : harsh, moving story and novella about the horror of the Holocaust and life afterwards

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
Commonweal A+ 15/12/1989 Irving Halperin
The LA Times A+ 8/10/1989 Ursula Hegi
The NY Times Book Rev. A+ 10/9/1989 Francine Prose
Partisan Review . Summer/1991 Rachel Hadas
Sydney Morning Herald . 24/9/2007 Ben Naparstek
TLS . 14/6/1991 Bryan Cheyette
USA Today A+ 16/11/1989 Bonita Friedman
Virginia Quart. Rev. A+ Winter/1990 .
Wall St. Journal A+ 29/9/1989 Bruce Bawer
The Washington Post . 5/11/1989 Anne Bernays

  Review Consensus:

  Boundless entusiasm. It is a masterpiece, and great art.

  From the Reviews:
  • "In a time when the memory of the Holocaust is being trivialized by slick fiction, talk shows, and TV "documentaries," and when some social "scientists" (necrophiliacs, Rosa would call them) are doing "research projects," written in atrocious psychobabble, on the "survivor," Ms. Ozick's volume is a particularly welcome achievement of the moral imagination." - Irving Halperin, Commonweal

  • "Devastating and exquisite, Cynthia Ozick's ninth book, The Shawl, carries the emotional impact of a much longer work. (...) Cynthia Ozick's The Shawl is brilliant, moving, and chilling as it attempts to convey a terror so immense that it overwhelms the characters and renders them speechless. To build any language out of this inability to articulate seems impossible; yet, Ozick does it in such a way that we, as readers, share the characters' powerlessness to give words to their innermost experiences and, therefore, are forced to relive them." - Ursula Hegi, The Los Angeles Times

  • "In her remarkable new book, The Shawl, Ms. Ozick (...) pulls off the rare trick of making art out of what we would rather not see. The experience of reading The Shawl is immensely troubling, especially if one pauses to think and feel and is not simply lulled by the pure pleasure that Ms. Ozick's wonderful sentences might otherwise occasion." - Francine Prose, The New York Times Book Review

  • "The Shawl contains, surely, some of the most powerful writing ever to address the Holocaust and its aftermath. (...) Ozick's fiction tends to be highly cerebral, often centering on bookish, reclusive types, much like the author. In its raw emotion, The Shawl stands out from Ozick's oeuvre. (...) It would be difficult to read a full-length novel of such concentrated and harrowing prose without becoming numb. In just 70 pages, Ozick creates a masterpiece that is both modest in its aims -- in its attempt to give voice to just one woman rather than a general Holocaust "experience" -- and yet also strangely final, as though no other literary depiction of the Shoah could possibly build on its sadness and power." - Ben Naparstek, Sydney Morning Herald

  • "(I)t is as forceful as someone grabbing your heart. The very brevity of the book in part accounts for its great impact." - Bonita Friedman, USA Today

  • "Ms. Ozick succeeds stunningly in bringing this tragic, demented woman to life. (...) Beautiful and harrowing, these stories are a masterly achievement." - Bruce Bawer, Wall Street Journal

  • "Ozick's work is so replete with vivid images, whether horrifying or comic, that at times it becomes like reading poetry." - Virginia Quarterly Review

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       This volumes contains two connected stories, the very short title piece, set during World War II, and the much longer story, Rosa, set in 1977.
       In The Shawl Rosa, her infant daughter Magda, and her fourteen year old niece Stella are Polish Jews interned in a concentration camp -- "a place without pity" during World War II. Miraculously the infant Magda has survived with her mother, hidden and protected in a shawl. If the Nazis ever learn of her presence she is certain to be killed. Sharing food -- of which there is never enough -- sucking on the shawl, Magda survives, for a while. Eventually, of course, the inevitable occurs. It is brutal, horrible, and sad, a very short story packing a big punch.
       The Shawl is a powerful story of unspeakable horrors, sparely written by a true artist. One might ask: to what end ? -- a question for which we do not have an answer. It is a very fine piece. It is also something that might not be to everyone's taste
       Rosa continues the story, more than thirty years later. Rosa Lublin and Stella live in the United States, with Rosa just having moved to Florida after demolishing her used-furniture store in Brooklyn. Rosa still suffers from the trauma of the loss of her daughter, and she continues to write letters to Magda, imagining her to be a great success now, "a professor of Greek philosophy at Columbia University in New York City", for example.
       Ozick describes Rosa's aimless life in Florida: doing laundry, getting her mail, puttering about. Significant events do happen: she is picked up by a man, she receives a package from her niece containing the shawl ("your idol", Stella calls it), she finds herself behind some barbed wire, and she receives mail from an academic working on "survivor syndroming" and "Repressed Animation".
       Rosa feels she does not have a life -- "Thieves took it", she repeats frequently -- and she falls back upon her treasured shawl. She is not painted merely as a sympathetic victim: she is a much more complex and full realized character, well-drawn by Ozick in these few pages.
       Rosa is a well-presented portrait of a Holocaust survivor, and successfully depicts the various (generally misguided) reactions to those who have endured the unspeakable horrors of the camps. It does what it sets out to do very well -- but, again, it may not be for everyone.

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The Shawl: Reviews: Cynthia Ozick: Other books by Cynthia Ozick under review: Other books of interest under review:
  • See Index of Contemporary American fiction

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About the Author:

       American author Cynthia Ozick is the author of numerous works of fiction, as well as several collections of essays. She has been awarded a number of prizes and honors, and she has received a Guggenheim Fellowship.

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