Book Review: ‘Study for Obedience’ by Sarah Bernstein (Shortlisted for The Booker Prize 2023)

A Lingering Exploration of Isolation and Unresolved Mysteries

Book Title: Study for Obedience
Author: Sarah Bernstein
Publisher: Granta Books
Number of Pages: 208
ISBN: 978-1783789931
Date Published: July 6, 2023
Price: INR 719

Study for Obedience by Sarah Bernstein Book Cover

Book Review

Study for Obedience,” the second novel by Canadian author Sarah Bernstein, featured in Granta’s Best of Young British Novelists 2023, weaves a gripping tale set in the not-so-distant future. The story follows an unnamed Jewish woman who relocates to a remote northern country to assist her estranged brother, residing in a former manor house. As she grapples with the traumatic past intertwined with her ancestors’ history of persecution and genocide, she becomes the subject of mistrust and fear among the locals, who attribute mysterious calamities to her presence.

Bernstein employs sparse yet lyrical prose, employing various narrative techniques such as the second-person point of view, flashbacks, and stream of consciousness. These techniques create an atmosphere of uncertainty and suspense, casting doubts on the narrator’s reliability and sanity. The novel’s exploration of themes like identity, belonging, memory, and responsibility adds depth to the narrative as the protagonist strives to make sense of her place in the world and role in the unfolding events.

Study for Obedience” parallels books with tales of individual versus community. The unnamed protagonist, settling in a northern UK community to aid her abandoned brother, becomes an unwitting scapegoat for several calamities. Language barriers heighten her isolation. The novel offers potential but leaves readers longing for resolution, challenging them with digressions and complexity. While it may defy easy categorization, its linguistic prowess and unconventional style make for a thought-provoking read, even if it doesn’t fully realize its premise.

The novel ventures beyond conventional literature, incorporating contemporary references to the Internet and mobile phones, infusing it with a modern sensibility. It raises questions about its categorization, pushing the boundaries of post-modernism and presenting a unique reading experience. “Study for Obedience” might not appeal to everyone, given its enigmatic prose and, sometimes, impenetrable narrative.

However, for those willing to invest time and thought, it offers a perplexing and beguiling work of art, challenging perceptions and leaving a lasting impact.

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In conclusion, “Study for Obedience” is a thought-provoking and complex novel that does not provide easy answers. It invites readers to grapple with intricate human relationships, particularly those shaped by trauma and violence, and forces contemplation on the enduring consequences of historical atrocities. The book’s haunting quality lingers long after the final page, leaving readers questioning guilt, collaboration, and the capacity for redemption.

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