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Study for Obedience (2023)

by Sarah Bernstein

Other authors: See the other authors section.

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22821118,771 (3.12)77
"A young woman moves from the place of her birth to the remote northern country of her forebears to be housekeeper to her brother, whose wife has recently left him. Soon after her arrival, a series of inexplicable events occurs - collective bovine hysteria; the demise of a ewe and her nearly born lamb; a local dog's phantom pregnancy; a potato blight. She notices that the local suspicion about incomers in general seems to be directed with some intensity at her and she senses a mounting threat that lies 'just beyond the garden gate.' And as she feels the hostility growing, pressing at the edges of her brother's property, she fears that, should the rumblings in the town gather themselves into a more defined shape, who knows what might happen, what one mightbe capable of doing. With a sharp, lyrical voice, Sarah Bernstein powerfully explores questions of complicity and power, displacement and inheritance. Study for Obedience is a finely tuned, unsettling novel that confirms Bernstein as one of the most exciting voices of her generation"--… (more)
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    The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath (kjuliff)
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Showing 1-5 of 20 (next | show all)
20. Study for Obedience by Sarah Bernstein
OPD: 2023
format: 195-page hardcover
acquired: December read: Mar 30 – Apr 6 time reading: 5:4, 1.6 mpp
rating: 5
genre/style: contemporary fiction theme: Booker 2023
locations: outside a small village in a contemporary unnamed northern country with a non-English language and mountains, possibly fictional.
about the author: A Canadian writer and scholar who teaches literature and creative writing in Scotland. She was born in Montreal, Quebec in 1987.

I've stalled on this one. I just don't have a review in me. My first reaction on finishing, which I wrote down, was mainly: "Seriously, whoa. What did I just read?"

This book has such a curious interesting and maybe quite wonderful opening, tossing at us unnatural happenings, a hint at the Holocaust, and some very odd phrasing by a narrator who tells us she can only shed "a weak and intermittent" light on her own actions.
"It was the year the sow eradicated her piglets. It was a swift and menacing time. ... it was springtime when I arrived in the country, an east wind blowing, an uncanny wind as it turned out. Certain things began to arise. ... I knew they were right to hold me responsible."
What witchery is this?

Shirley Jackson’s [We Have Always Lived in the Castle] was always in my mind, our narrator a Merricat of sorts. But different. Merricat was openly bitter and judgmental and superior to those commoners in town. Here our narrator is a Jewish immigrant who doesn’t speak the language. She’s not superior in the same way. She professes a humbleness, a life "cultivating solitude, pursuing silence to its ever-receding horizon".

I was lost enough in this book that many things I read about afterward in reviews were things I completely missed (Here in the spoiler is a list. Don't open if haven't read it: incest, antisemitism, the narrator's dark intents). I was, if you like, beguiled by this curious narrator.

What I think I picked on was a sense of surreal dread and a notable cultural critique on our communal crimes, like our unabated creation of climate change, in full knowledge of what we are doing. How we are all guilty of communal crimes because we obey the rules of the world we live in, perpetuating its crimes to take care of ourselves.

Not sure I've provided anything useful here in this post. I enjoyed this curiosity, found it wonderfully done, found the writing, which focuses so much on the sound, always interesting and terrific, with its own rhythm and life. And I say this even as I didn't really get it. Anyway, I encourage anyone interested to plunge in. This maybe should have won the Booker over [Prophet Song], as terrific as PS was.

2024
https://www.librarything.com/topic/358760#8514318 ( )
  dchaikin | Apr 20, 2024 |
Survivor’s guilt, historical and group-based, filtered through the influences of Thomas Bernhard and Shirley Jackson. I have not read any Bernhard or explicitly Bernhardian influenced novels that I have much liked, it is evidently not a style that agrees with my personal taste in literature, so maybe this is like me asking a country music listener to rate a new ambient record. Predictable results, right? You can move on.

The narrator of the novel turns Bernhardian vituperation inward to castigate and attack herself rather than direct it outwards to society, which is at least an interesting twist. Bernhard would (and did most enthusiastically!) attack the society that produced the Holocaust; Bernstein’s narrator claims to love it:
For all things come to an end, yes, as the lives of my forebears had come to an end, life itself and life as they knew it, never knowing, never understanding why or wherefore, only that a feeling, running under the seams for centuries, had broken to the surface. How then could I not love these people, who represented the closest thing to an inheritance I could be said to have?


How can you love the society that produced centuries of violence, pograms, genocide against your group of people? How can you not blame them but rather find the fault within yourself for the feelings they bear against you as part of that community? It can only be through internalized oppression, an OBEDIENCE to the beliefs of the dominant society around you. Our narrator practices such an obedience as a child through the gender-based oppression she is met with inside her own family and tribe and now later practices obedience towards ethnic based prejudice. Her obedience is allegorically explored through, for instance, a neighbor’s belief that her dog has been impregnated by the narrator’s neutered dog; our narrator finds reasons to go along and accept and justify the neighbor’s belief. If you can do that, what sort of proposition can’t you be obedient to.

It seems to be survivor’s guilt that motivates this drive towards obedient self-abnegation. Why should she be here existing when so many were destroyed? Our narrator points to a guilt handed down the generations, guilt and trauma reproducing themselves coming up on a century past the Holocaust, though you could well indeed look back further to centuries of enduring violence. Addressing the villagers in the novel’s absurdist ending, she asks,

The fundamental question that I pose now, that has been posed before and elsewhere, more or less word for word, here it is, my brother, prepare yourself, is whether one can go on living after all, whether one who escaped by accident, one who by rights should have been killed, may go on living. One asks it of oneself, this question posed by all the faces seated before me in the town church, the question that reverberated through the cavernous suburban homes, that was transmitted in the lullabies.


So that’s the main thing I think it’s doing after a read through, though I recognize other things as well. The problem is I am perhaps not capable of enjoying a Bernhardian style. I have little patience for it. I found myself counting the numbers of commas separating short phrases, looking for the sentence with the most (25 in my reading, though there may well be a sentence with more). You might as well ask me to rate a country music album; however much country fans highly rate it, I’m not likely to. But maybe one day that exceptional example will break through… never know.

2.5 for me but I’ll round it to 3. ( )
  lelandleslie | Feb 24, 2024 |
Shortlisted - Booker Prize 2023
  ProcterLibrary | Feb 10, 2024 |
“The prose refracts Javier Marías sometimes, at other times Samuel Beckett.” Her prose certainly does not “refract” as Marías and Beckett actually have talent. Pure MFA schlock. ( )
  OdysseusElytis | Jan 18, 2024 |
I don't really know what to write about this book. It won the Scotiabank Giller Prize for 2023 and was shortlisted for the 2023 Booker Prize. So obviously people have found it worthy of acclaim. But not me; I found it difficult to read mostly because the author uses run-on sentences that sometimes take up a whole page. Also, the narrator is either unreliable or one of the most naive persons ever imagined.

Here's what the Giller jury said about the book:
“The modernist experiment continues to burn incandescently in Sarah Bernstein’s slim novel, Study for Obedience. Bernstein asks the indelible question: what does a culture of subjugation, erasure, and dismissal of women produce? In this book, equal parts poisoned and sympathetic, Bernstein’s unnamed protagonist goes about exacting, in shockingly twisted ways, the price of all that the world has withheld from her. The prose refracts Javier Marias sometimes, at other times Samuel Beckett. It’s an unexpected and fanged book, and its own studied withholdings create a powerful mesmeric effect.”

The narrator is the youngest of a large family who was trained to meet the various needs of her older siblings. When her entrepreneurial oldest brother calls her to come look after him in his home in some unnamed northern country because his wife and children have left him, she drops everything. The area where the brother lives is a rural community with a few small shops and a communal farm. The family's ancestors lived here before they were driven away by the other inhabitants which was probably due to them being Jewish. The narrator's brother has learned the local language and seems to get along well with the neighbours but the narrator cannot speak the language despite taking lessons and, soon after her arrival, is made the scapegoat for various livestock deaths. This isn't helped by the brother's prolonged absence from home although he seems to be in touch with community members. He advises his sister to put her name down to help at the communal farm. She is put to mucking out the barn where the cows were kept before they all had to be killed due to some communicable disease. Despite her hard work on the farm she still isn't accepted by the locals. Even when her brother finally returns home, she is shunned by them. The brother shortly becomes ill (perhaps at the sister's hands) and there seems to be no medical help available and the locals won't approach the house. So the narrator is left in this huge house looking after her brother much like one would a pet while the outside world fades away. The book ends with this sentence: "Nevertheless, I say to myself, softly, I am living, I claim my right to live."

Is that really living? If so, it's a bleak prospect. ( )
  gypsysmom | Jan 9, 2024 |
Showing 1-5 of 20 (next | show all)
“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.
 

» Add other authors (1 possible)

Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
Bernstein, Sarahprimary authorall editionsconfirmed
Granta BooksPublishersecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Green, AnnaCover designersecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
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Epigraph
'I can turn the tables and do as I want. I can make women stronger. I can make them obedient and murderous at the same time.'

-Paula Rego
'Language is punishment. It must encompass all things and in it all things must again transpire according to guilt and the degree of guilt.'

-Ingeborg Bachmann
Dedication
For my pops, Nat Bernstein, who taught me to love the sound of the words.

1940-2022
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It was the year the sow eradicated her piglets.
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"A young woman moves from the place of her birth to the remote northern country of her forebears to be housekeeper to her brother, whose wife has recently left him. Soon after her arrival, a series of inexplicable events occurs - collective bovine hysteria; the demise of a ewe and her nearly born lamb; a local dog's phantom pregnancy; a potato blight. She notices that the local suspicion about incomers in general seems to be directed with some intensity at her and she senses a mounting threat that lies 'just beyond the garden gate.' And as she feels the hostility growing, pressing at the edges of her brother's property, she fears that, should the rumblings in the town gather themselves into a more defined shape, who knows what might happen, what one mightbe capable of doing. With a sharp, lyrical voice, Sarah Bernstein powerfully explores questions of complicity and power, displacement and inheritance. Study for Obedience is a finely tuned, unsettling novel that confirms Bernstein as one of the most exciting voices of her generation"--

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