Shortlisted for the Booker Prize 2023. In her accomplished and unsettling second novel, Sarah Bernstein explores themes of prejudice, abuse and guilt through the eyes of a singularly unreliable narrator

A woman moves from the place of her birth to a ‘remote northern country’ to be housekeeper to her brother, whose wife has just left him. Soon after she arrives, a series of unfortunate events occurs: collective bovine hysteria; the death of a ewe and her nearly-born lamb; a local dog’s phantom pregnancy; a potato blight.  

She notices that the community’s suspicion about incomers in general seems to be directed particularly in her case. She feels their hostility growing, pressing at the edges of her brother’s property. Inside the house, although she tends to her brother and his home with the utmost care and attention, he too begins to fall ill… 

The Booker Prize 2023
Published by
Granta Books
Publication date

Buy the book

We benefit financially from any purchases you make when using the ‘Buy the book’ links.

Sarah Bernstein

Sarah Bernstein

About the Author

Sarah Bernstein is a Canadian writer and scholar who was born in Montreal and now lives in the Scottish Highlands, where she teaches literature and creative writing
More about Sarah Bernstein

Watch our video with Sarah Bernstein

Study for Obedience is an absurdist, darkly funny novel about the rise of xenophobia, as seen through the eyes of a stranger in an unnamed town – or is it? Bernstein’s urgent, crystalline prose upsets all our expectations, and what transpires is a meditation on survival itself

— The Booker Prize 2023 judges

Sarah Bernstein on writing Study for Obedience

‘One of the many inefficiencies in the way I work is that I tend to approach things through the sound of a line – so it’s almost like catching a musical phrase, and then trying to follow the logic of its sound, rather than primarily its sense. Story tends to follow voice rather than the other way around. (I am hoping to find a better way to work in future). This time, I had been writing pieces that ended up forming the basis of the narrator’s voice and publishing them as poems or micro fiction for a few years before I realised they might be connected. Once I realised they were, and that they might be part of a longer project, I spent a couple of months reading widely and taking notes – which is usually how I start – and then once I had a basic idea of what the story might be, the rest didn’t take very long. A few more months of consistent work, maybe.  

I work in the brightest room in my house, which is the front porch. It is usually a little bit too cold in the winter and a little bit too warm in the summer, but the windows look out onto the bay, so I can watch what’s happening with the weather and the sea life. I try to keep it tidy, but it’s also a growing and drying space, so right now it’s a bit crowded with tomato plants, their attendant flies, and a rack of curing onions.’ 

Read the full interview here

Study for Obedience by Sarah Bernstein

Bel Powley reads from Study for Obedience

Why you should read Study for Obedience, according to our judges

Study for Obedience is an absurdist tale about how a stranger’s arrival in an unnamed town slowly unearths deep undercurrents of xenophobia, and it feels very like an allegory for the rise of ideological radicalism today. It is also a stirring meditation on survival.’

‘It has the uncanny charm of feeling like both a historical work – with its pastoral settings, petty superstitions, and suspicious villagers – and something bracingly modern. In this way it very cleverly, and with great irony, draws a link between a past we’d like to believe is behind us and our very charged present. 

‘The humour here is dry as a bone, very Bernhard-esque; it is obliquely and surprisingly funny.’

Sarah Bernstein Booker 2023 shortlist

What the critics said

Sarah Crown, The TLS 

‘On the surface, it is a simple story – so simple, in fact, that it borders on plotless: the narrator fills her days with domestic tasks, and fills the pages of her account with pleasing descriptions of the “picturesque” countryside. But if the narrative is loose-knit, the atmosphere clots and complicates with every passing sentence; the quotidian tasks and pleasures are cast into relief by a mounting sense of menace. Everything here feels subtly off-key, oddly angled, tilted towards darkness.’ 

Cal Revely-Calder, The Telegraph 

Study for Obedience has a parable’s radiance: the air of the consequential, of a cast who represent us all. Yet it’s too alive a story to rest on obvious messages. Our sympathy for this outsider is muddled by her love of subservience – her peculiar desire to melt her identity into air. Bernstein’s writing is philosophically opaque, as well as electric and elegant. It’s unfortunately fashionable to speak of what novels “say”, to posit that they, and everything else, should convey a single-minded stance. Such childishness melts away before a novel such as this: one that reminds you, beautifully, that fiction is a moral art.’ 

Miriam Balanescu, The Guardian  

‘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.’ 

Study for Obedience by Sarah Bernstein