Literarily Speaking

Study for Obedience by Sarah Bernstein

Avery Nowicki (They/Them) // Communities Editor

Listen… I will not lie, I read a lot. 

As a writing major, I started young. While many were making friends in elementary school, I was busy developing close friendships with the librarians, and beginning my career as a future bestselling novelist (writing little stories about ballerinas in my textbook and not learning how to multiply. We all do things we regret). 

And look, I get it, not all of us can be cool enough to have read every Allie Finkle’s Rules for Girls, Dork Diaries, and Diary of a Wimpy Kid book before we turned eleven (I looked like an exact-replica of Greg Heffley. I have photo evidence). Those of us who did develop our reading habits early, often stuck with them. As we got older, we likely went through the inevitable YA fiction phase. I will spare you from revisiting our collective John Green obsession, though feel free to take this moment to recount exactly how many times you also cried about two dying teenagers, smoking metaphorical cigarettes on airplanes and kissing IN THE ANNE FRANK HOUSE! (thirteen-year-old Avery considered The Fault in Our Stars to be an invaluable literary text). Like many of us, you likely also fell victim to the YA dystopian genre. Say it with me, to heal your pre-teen self  — “I am not Katniss Everdeen. I am not the chosen one. I do not need to purchase a crossbow right now. I am thirteen.” Repeat 3 times for effectiveness. 

Though, with our exploratory reading years behind us, the time eventually came to pick a major. In which you, and I may have chosen to be writers or English majors, aka unemployed and well-read. This fateful decision led us, and many others, to fully commit ourselves to becoming a special subsect of library dwellers … pretentious nerds. Welcome nerd, it is now my time, as a clearly seasoned literary scholar, to show you the novels beyond the BookTok table in the doorway of Indigo. Behold, the next best authors you should be reading … and if you think you are too good for BookTok, put that Hemmingway back on the shelf and listen up (we both know you weren’t going to read it anyway). 

This month, we will be discussing author Sarah Bernstein’s 2023 Giller Prize winning novel, Study for Obedience. This novel follows a young woman, shortly after her return to her birthplace in the remote northern countryside. The woman becomes the housekeeper for her brother, after his wife leaves him. A series of unnerving events begin to occur — the death of a newborn lamb, a local dog’s phantom pregnancy, a potato blight. The woman senses a mounting threat which lies ‘just beyond the garden gate’ as hostility grows on the other side of her brother’s property. She worries that if the rumblings in his town grow a collective voice, danger may be imminent. 

Sarah Bernstein is a Canadian writer, born in Montreal, Quebec. Bernstein received a Bachelor’s in Creative Writing and English from Concordia University, and a Master’s in English and Creative Writing from the University of New Brunswick where she worked at The Fiddlehead and Qwerty publications. She then obtained a PhD at the University of Edinburgh. Bernstein now resides in Scotland, where she teaches literature and creative writing. At only 36, Bernstein has taught at University of Sheffield, Edinburgh and Strathclyde. She is the author of three novels, Now Comes the Lightning (2015), The Coming Bad Days (2021) and Study for Obedience (2023). In the last year, she has been named one of the best young writers in Britain by Granta Magazine, was awarded the Scotiabank Giller Prize, and was longlisted for the Booker Prize. 

In terms of voice, Bernstein lends a sharp tone to her sentence framing, leaning into lyrical voice with her word choice. If you ever got to read Shirley Jackson’s classic short story The Lottery in seventh grade, or have read Iain Reid’s I’m Thinking of Ending Things (P.S.A, do not listen to that one on Audible. The reader seems like a nice lady but she does this goofy ghost voice when things are supposed to be scary. Ma’am, who do you know that talks like that?) then this may be your cup of tea. Bernstein writes the unnerving in a format truly unique to herself. BookTok fans may be tempted to hint at similarities to Ottessa Moshfegh, particularly in her usage of the animal, though I may also suggest mild similarities to Ari Astar’s film, Midsommar

Finally, as a lasting incentive to read Study for Obedience, I leave you with the opening few lines of the novel. If you are anything like me, you will be running out of that Indigo… actually wait! Stay there, reverse your steps and walk back to the highlighted tables, she’s probably propped up somewhere around there under 2023 ‘Giller Prize Winner’. 

‘It was the year the sow eradicated her piglets. It was a swift and menacing time. One of the local dogs was having a phantom pregnancy. Things were leaving one place and showing up in another. 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. The pigs came later though not much, and even if I had only recently arrived, had no livestock-caretaking responsibilities, had only been in to look safely on one side of the electric fence, I knew they were right to hold me responsible. But all that as I said came later.’

* Copies available at: NVPL, VPL.

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