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Booker Prize 2023 - Study for Obedience by Sarah Bernstein

A young woman moves to an unnamed Northern country to stay with her older brother as a housekeeper. Here she faces not only the strange harshness of her aloof sibling but the contempt of the locals who recognise her right away as a person of the worst kind: a stranger. For some reason, wordlessness as response to injustice perhaps, incapable to learn their language however much she tries, she stays on the edges of the community. In the eyes of her inhabitants, the increasingly unreliable narrator grows all the more suspicious as strange and inexplicable things start happening that can only have been caused by her arrival. Animals go mad, produce gets spoilt, even her own brother falls ill. With the brewing hostility, her fear grows into something that threatens to overwhelm her while all she seeks to do is obey and serve her brother, as she has always learned to do.

Study for Obedience is a strange novel and I am sorry to report I did not get on with it at all. Bernstein’s writing is lyrical and experimental, two qualities I do enjoy in literature but she might have taken them a step too far. Having gone into this novel with the full attention to just absorb her language and feel the effect of this Granta young British novelist, but very soon the words turned into blobs of ink moving past my eyes. I didn’t catch much of what she was telling me and, worse, I did not care. Elsewhere, author and novel have been praised for exactly that, so I am happy to suggest (as I often will if I don’t get on with a book) that it’s not her, it’s me. What she does is certainly interesting though in a way that felt decorative, rather than substantial. The themes she explores could have been handled a lot more effectively in a language that is more accessible. It is possible that was her intention, language and its absence, the narrator’s incapacity to communicate with the locals, being such a crucial issue in this story but for me it took all the pleasure of reading out of this book. Study for Obedience might rather be analysed in a science lab, than enjoyed in an armchair.

Published by Granta, 2023

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