Saturday, February 24, 2024

Study for Obedience - Sarah Bernsetin (And a 2023 Booker Prize List Update)


For reasons not entirely clear to me, Sarah Bernstein's Study for Obedience was included on the 2023 Booker Prize shortlist. The novel remains as much a puzzle to me today as it did when, expecting a quick read, I began the first of its 200-or-so pages. A quick read, this is not.

The publisher compares Bernstein's style to that of Shirley Jackson, a writer I've often enjoyed reading, and I agree that Bernstein does capture some of the weirdness of a Shirley Jackson novel, especially by using a nameless narrator who lives almost entirely inside her own head. Bernstein's narrator, I suspect, is somewhere on the autism spectrum, but because no other character ever speaks to anyone but her, it's hard to tell for sure sometimes what is really happening and what is only being imagined. 

The basic premise of the book is that the narrator has been groomed almost since she could walk to be at the beck and call of her numerous older siblings and their parents. And there is every indication that the others were all happy enough to exploit her right up until they became adults with spouses of their own. After the last of her siblings left home, the narrator began working as a legal document transcriber and lived alone. Now, though, she has been summoned by her eldest brother to join him where he lives alone in some remote "northern" town where no one speaks English (French Canada, perhaps). There she is to serve as his housekeeper and general servant - even to bathing him and laying out his clothes each morning.

Despite having her life reclaimed this way, the narrator is somewhat surprised that she is so happy to be sharing a home with her brother again - and she so much relishes her isolation (especially when her brother leaves town for weeks at a time) that the language barrier is no problem. But then the animals, both domestic and wild, begin to display strange behavior and suffer in ways not known to have ever happened before in the village. Suddenly everyone perceives our forever-to-remained-unnamed narrator to be "the other," someone so different from the rest of them that she is a direct threat to the only life they have ever known.

Ultimately, this is, I think, a novel about being different, about being perceived as an outsider by everyone around you, and how the "normals" react to anyone they can't explain or understand. Perhaps Bernstein means it as a reprimand about the uneasiness that so many of us feel about the mass migration underway in the world today. And just maybe, I don't have a clue about any of this.

 Study for Obedience is not a difficult novel to read; it's a difficult novel to absorb, one that is likely to be a lot deeper than book I've just read. 

Sarah Bernstein book jacket photo


I have now read nine of the 2023 Booker Prize nominees and sampled two others long enough to know that I did not want to finish them. That leaves just two to go, and both of those have been on hold at my library for a while now.

My personal ranking of the eleven 2023 Booker novels I've experienced to this point goes like this:

  1. The House of Doors
  2. The Bee Sting
  3. If I Survive You
  4. Western Lane
  5. All the Little Bird-Hearts
  6. Pearl
  7. Old God's Time
  8. This Other Eden
  9. Study for Obedience
  10. A Spell of Good Things
  11. In Ascension 


  1. I have read about terrible stories like this in real life where it was later discovered that one sibling since childhood was picked on and abused by the rest of the family and it often ends tragically. And it seems to me this kind of story would work better as nonfiction centering on a real life family and where were the police and social services.

    I will be interested to see the new Booker and Pulitzer nominees this year but Study For Obedience is a reminder to proceed with caution as to what book to pick up.

    1. I think you're probably right that this topic would work better in nonfiction than it does in this novel. I can easily imagine something like this happening in the real world, even more so in the past than today, maybe. I really don't like being this confused about the author's intent after finishing a book, though. The 2023 Booker Prize nominees were all pretty dark and disturbing. This is the first year I've read so many of them this close together, so I can't compare the 2023 tone to previous years. You're right...can't wait to see what the committee comes up with for 2024.

  2. I probably wouldn't have finished this one even though it's so short. I like books where I can connect to the characters, and I really don't enjoy such passive narrators.

    1. Not a single character in this novel that I even remotely connected with, Lark. Definitely part of the problem I had with it, and probably why it took me surprisingly long to finish it.

  3. It's a pretty odd one and her relations with the townsfolk get pretty weird along with the animals in it -- like the dog's fake pregnancy. Say what?! Not only did the author make the Booker shortlist but her novel won Canada's Giller prize over Birnam Wood which stunned me. I still hope to read Birnam Wood this spring/summer. You've read a good number on list.

    1. I was just bewildered by the book the more I tried to figure it out. It got to be more of a chore than a pleasure, so it took a lot longer for me to read than it should have taken. I'm reading my next-to-last 2023 Booker book, "How to Build a Boat" right now and I'm really liking that one so far. It's a coming of age story about yet another autistic child. Autism seems to have been a big Booker theme in 2023 choices. That will make ten read, two abandoned, and one to go...the winner.


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