The power of words | Review of Sarah Bernstein’s Booker Prize contender ‘Study for Obedience’ 

The book grabs attention with its vivid imagery although the story itself meanders

September 14, 2023 02:51 pm | Updated November 20, 2023 10:09 am IST

Sarah Bernstein’s Booker Prize contender Study for Obedience grabs attention when the narrator starts with “It was the year the sow eradicated her piglets. One of the local dogs was having a phantom pregnancy.”

Many unusual things start happening around the narrator who is never named. All that is revealed is that she has moved to the cold northern part of the country (the name of which is also never mentioned) at her brother’s request to house-sit for him while he travels. She is not responsible for what happens to the animals or the livestock but blames herself for not just this but the many disasters that follow. Her persecution complex is a recurring theme. It is difficult to know how much of what she feels is real or imaginary, or a clever play on words and imagery.

The narrator is the youngest of many siblings, more than she cares to remember. She does not give any details about them. Having worked as a nondescript journalist in the city (that’s how she describes herself), she gives it up for a job as an audio typist at a legal firm, a job at which she excels. This too she gives up to go to her divorced brother’s house at his request. She is used to serving her siblings.

Few conversations

There is a hint that the family is Jewish. Nothing is ever said overtly. The brother describes the breakdown of his marriage. They had shared too much about themselves, knew too much about one another for mutual respect to be possible. Then the narrator recalls her own aborted attempts at intimacy, with men,with women, and all that she had ever come away with was a sense of her essential interchangeability. “People touched me, when they touched me, with a series of predetermined gestures in no way adapted to me, to my consciousness or sensations, limited though they were, insensible though surely was.”

Author Sarah Bernstein

Author Sarah Bernstein | Photo Credit:

This is a book with hardly any conversation. The brother announces that he is going away for a few days, leaving her to look after the house. There are hints about their relationship which appears quite intimate. She bathes him saying she could feel the tension in his back as she soaped it in the morning, a stiffness of posture when she dressed him. She likes to dress him. She is completely under his control from childhood.

Although disappointed at his departure, she consoles herself knowing she can roam more freely, and at leisure, observing the frog life, which is prolific that spring, spawning in ponds and roadside puddles.

Descriptive passages

It is a book of lovely descriptions and long sentences. She is finally going out after many days, “leaving the seclusion of the house and the woods and go into town for provisions. At the centre of the town there was a church, there was nothing sinister in that, and around the church, a churchyard. I had always had a feeling for churches, especially country churches such as this one, surrounded by trees, planted perhaps, at the time of the church’s construction, the church and trees growing together over the years, over the centuries, such a long broken life this town had!”

The book meanders from one chapter to another, not necessarily connected. Study for Obedience is strictly for those who enjoy good writing and the power of words, and are not bothered about an interesting story or structure.

Study for Obedience
Sarah Bernstein
Granta Books

The reviewer is a Chennai-based journalist and author.

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