The Shawl by Cynthia Ozick (Shane's book 34, 2010)

This slim volume contains a short story, The Shawl, and a novella, Rosa. In The Shawl, Rosa is in a Nazi concentration camp with her niece, Stella, and her baby daughter Magda. The novella finds Rosa living in Florida decades later. [amtap book:isbn=0752880764]

It's impossible to discuss the two stories without explaining what happens in The Shawl so if you wish to avoid spoilers I suggest you stop here. Suffice to say: The Shawl is an utterly heartbreaking masterpiece and you should read it.The Shawl is just eight pages long but Ozick packs an extraordinary amount of detail and emotion into such little space. In a Nazi concentration camp in occupied Poland, towards the end of the second world war, Rosa is keeping her baby daughter, Magda, hidden in a shawl. When Stella, Rosa's teenage niece, takes the shawl because she is cold, the guards find Magda and kill her.

It's a horrifying story and written with such sparseness and humanity that it's impossible not to be moved. Ozick's language is almost poetic and she uses it perfectly to show Rosa's fear and despair.

The novella, Rosa, finds the title character in old age, retired to Florida having destroyed the shop she owned in New York. She is supported financially by Stella and cannot escape the trauma of Magda's death.

Again, Ozick draws Rosa's life in simple, unsentimental language as the woman goes through her quiet existence, doing her laundry and writing letters. Rosa meets a man, Simon Persky, a retired button-maker, who - undaunted by her disinterest - flirts with her and slowly begins a friendship.

Persky is something of a tragic figure himself - his wife is in a mental hospital - but he has a comic edge that adds some lightness to the story. I found myself rooting for him in his attempts to make Rosa's life a little less lonely.

Rosa would be a beautiful story on its own but as a sequel to The Shawl it carries enormous weight. I recommend this book to everyone.