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The Guardian - UK
The Guardian - UK
Miriam Balanescu

Study for Obedience by Sarah Bernstein review – a masterly meditation on life as a survivor

‘Painting from a palette of dread’: Sarah Bernstein
‘Painting from a palette of dread’: Sarah Bernstein. Photograph: Alice Meikles

In the years since #MeToo, an outpouring of fiction by writers such as Emma Cline, Sophie Mackintosh and Rachel Yoder has grappled with what it means to be a victim, and what it takes to be an abuser. Montreal-born, Scottish-based author Sarah Bernstein’s second novel, Study for Obedience, spins a carefully woven web of culpability and criminality – of which gender is one fine thread – in answering its central question: if attacks on minority groups are unrelenting, in what ways do those groups internalise blame?

“I knew they were right to hold me responsible,” professes Bernstein’s unnamed narrator at the outset. “They” are the native residents of an unspecified remote northern country where her entrepreneurial elder brother lives in a lavish, former gentry-owned manor house. After his marriage breaks down, she drops everything and travels to be at his beck and call. The crime of which she stands accused is begetting a series of local environmental catastrophes on her arrival: a dog’s “phantom pregnancy”; a depressive sow crushing her piglets; and a herd of crazed cattle.

There is a fundamental paradox in Bernstein’s narrator – or non-narrator. The youngest of many parasitically needy siblings, since childhood she has been “trained” by her brother to “reorient all my desires in the service of another”. It is hinted that he once abused her, and there remains a trace of something almost incestuous between them (“I did like to dress him,” she mentions passingly).

But more is amiss: she and her brother belong to “an obscure though reviled people who had been dogged across borders and put into pits”. The country to which her brother has emigrated is where this persecution of their Jewish ancestors took place. The narrator’s encounters with modern-day antisemitism are captured acutely and absurdly. She is pointedly made the money-handling treasurer of organisations, and the townspeople recoil at her every move, whether a benign glance, “hello” or eating in the town’s diner – which provokes a scream.

On the other hand, despite her sympathy regarding the townspeople’s resentment after the unfortunate recent events, the narrator cannot resist divisive hobbies such as the weaving of “reed men” – her ancestor’s craft, she believes – which she deposits on the doorsteps of residents (“One never knew how one’s gifts might be received”). Through the cracks of a story told by a narrator who often evades and reels back her account, we glimpse the terror she inspires in others – and can only wonder whether we should take her at her word.

As in her first novel, The Coming Bad Days, Bernstein paints from a palette of dread, her fickle narrator imagining that the land itself is trying to “expel” her. Little actually happens, but, mirroring the protagonist’s daily ramblings through the woods, 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.

Study for Obedience by Sarah Bernstein is published by Granta (£12.99). To support the Guardian and Observer order your copy at Delivery charges may apply

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