Bewitchingly claustrophobic and uncomfortable, wrapped in a sensuous blanket of sophisticated and eerie prose. Nothing felt real yet Bernstein's perception of the most basic human emotions, most remarkably hate, is simultaneously stunning, horrific, and oddly the most real thing I've ever read.
This book caught me completely off guard. The language is so spare and beautiful. While clearly set in modern times (there is mention of cell phones) I had the feeling of reading something timeless. I pictured the main character wearing a long muslin dress while binding figurines out of straw, taking care of chickens and scrubbing her brother's back. Her musings on being an outsider even a pariah whose religion and facial features instilled fear in her neighbors are also sadly timeless.
WINNER OF THE 2023 SCOTIABANK GILLER PRIZE Shortlisted for the 2023 Booker Prize Included in Granta's Best of Young British Novelists 2023
For readers of Shirley Jackson, Iain Reid, and Claire-Louise Bennett, a haunting, compressed masterwork from an extraordinary new voice in Canadian fiction.
A young woman moves from the place of her birth to the remote northern country of her forebears to be housekeeper to her brother, whose wife has recently left him.
Soon after her arrival, a series of inexplicable events occurs - collective bovine hysteria; the demise of a ewe and her nearly born lamb; a local dog's phantom pregnancy; a potato blight. She notices that the local suspicion about incomers in general seems to be directed with some intensity at her and she senses a mounting threat that lies 'just beyond the garden gate.' And as she feels the hostility growing, pressing at the edges of her brother's property, she fears that, should the rumblings in the town gather themselves into a more defined shape, who knows what might happen, what one might be capable of doing.
With a sharp, lyrical voice, Sarah Bernstein powerfully explores questions of complicity and power, displacement and inheritance. Study for Obedience is a finely tuned, unsettling novel that confirms Bernstein as one of the most exciting voices of her generation.
About the Author
SARAH BERNSTEIN is from Montreal, Canada, and lives in Scotland. Her writing has appeared in Granta among other publications. Her first novel, The Coming Bad Days, was published in 2021. In 2023 she was named as one of Granta’s Best of Young British Novelists.
WINNER OF THE 2023 SCOTIABANK GILLER PRIZE SHORTLISTED FOR THE 2023 BOOKER PRIZE
"Study for Obedience is an absurdist, darkly funny novel about the rise of xenophobia, as seen through the eyes of a stranger in an unnamed town – or is it? Bernstein’s urgent, crystalline prose upsets all our expectations, and what transpires is a meditation on survival itself." —The Booker Prize 2023 judges
“The modernist experiment continues to burn incandescently in Sarah Bernstein’s slim novel Study for Obedience. Bernstein asks the indelible question: what does a culture of subjugation, erasure, and dismissal of women produce? In this book, equal parts poisoned and sympathetic, Bernstein’s unnamed protagonist goes about exacting, in shockingly twisted ways, the price of all that the world has withheld from her. The prose refracts Javier Marias sometimes, at other times Samuel Beckett. It’s an unexpected and fanged book, and its own studied withholdings create a powerful mesmeric effect.” —2023 Giller Prize Jury
“One of the year’s best novels. . . . Study for Obedience has a parable’s radiance: the air of the consequential, of a cast who represents us all. Yet it’s too alive a story to rest on obvious messages. . . . Bernstein’s writing is philosophically opaque, as well as electric and elegant. It’s unfortunately fashionable to speak of what novels “say”, to posit that they, and everything else, should convey a single-minded stance. Such childishness melts away before a novel such as this: one that reminds you, beautifully, that fiction is a moral art.” —Daily Telegraph (5 stars)
"A strange, unsettling, and profoundly beguiling book. . . . The sly ambiguity of Study for Obedience practically demands rereadings. And while the story of the stranger who arrives in town and appears to upset the order of things is an old one, Bernstein’s novel feels entirely original; something ancient and unnervingly modern all at once." —The Globe and Mail
"Scratch beneath the surface of Bernstein’s work and something definitively, and horrifyingly, universal emerges. Her books are studies in the mechanisms of exploitation—enacted both within contexts of labour and intimacy—exploring how power can be shifted and appropriated, and how we all become complicit in its exercise. . . . Bernstein is fast becoming one of the most singular voices of a generation raised on austerity and precarity." —AnOther Magazine
“An atmosphere of dread, surfacing violence and the uncanny permeates this remarkable novel. . . . With so little space to breathe on each page, the reader is utterly transported into Bernstein’s unsettling and unknowable worlds. . . . There is a decided shift away from feminine vulnerability and passivity towards the thrilling anarchic potential of a woman’s agency. . . . Study for Obedience interrogates society’s hostility towards outsiders, but the true difficulty of this compelling book lies in its uncomfortable suggestion that when an outcast gains agency, this agency may not be used for society’s good.” —Financial Times
“Precise and startling. . . . You don’t so much read a Sarah Bernstein novel as get trapped inside it. . . . Bernstein has an ambitious style that’s entirely her own. . . . In her second novel, Study for Obedience, the intense introspection remains, but this time the narrator’s gaze is more expansive, exploring whether it is possible to escape a past buried deep in your bones. . . . Bernstein’s energies are poured into shaping the distinctive psychology of her narrator and her equally distinctive prose. . . . Exhilarating.” —The Times
“A masterly meditation on life as a survivor. . . . Study for Obedience . . . spins a carefully woven web of culpability and criminality. . . . The novel is made up of philosophical, sometimes rhapsodic meanderings logged in meticulous, measured prose. . . . .Bernstein was recently named one of Granta’s best young British novelists of 2023, and it’s little wonder. This masterly follow-up to her debut acts as a meditation on survival, the dangers of absorbing the narratives of the powerful, and a warning that the self-blame of the oppressed often comes back to bite.” —The Observer
"A story of abjection. . . . This compelling book serves as a powerful castigation of those who would draw the lines of society and communal identity so as to narrow diversity and to punish those who dare to be different.” —Irish Times
"[There is] much to admire in this short novel: much fine and evocative descriptive writing, many interesting and intelligent observations. So, for instance, writing of her brother, the narrator says: ‘For a man whose commitment to his own interests was so very serious, it must be, I reflected, no small thing to throw off the yoke of one’s history. He had done very well for himself in that regard.’ Henry James would surely have approved of that comment. . . . There are fine things in abundance here, for Bernstein is a very gifted and intelligent writer. There are pages anyone might have been proud of writing.” —The Scotsman
“A thought-provoking tale about the pervasive influence of storytelling on apparently objective history.” —The Literary Review of Canada
"Strange and beautiful. . . . This is a unique novel that is primal and eerie, where language creates silence and vivid images reflect a kind of earthiness where our most intimate selves live." —Asale Angel-Ajani
"A fully absorbing, beautiful and sinister portrait of becoming and unbelonging, of violence held in time and place." —David Hayden
"Sarah Bernstein manages to combine cool, perfectly weighted prose with an extraordinary emotional sensibility." —Fiona Mozley