An oblique novel of sacrifice and survival, Study for Obedience by Sarah Bernstein tells the story of a young woman who uproots her life and moves to a remote part of Northern Europe, in order to become her brother’s housekeeper and companion. Her martyrish aims to be good, quiet, and to serve others, are taking a toll on her embattled ego, and there’s something else. Something uncanny about her which invites suspicion and hostility from the local residents. Our unnamed protagonist fears that there is something in her blood that makes people recoil, a frisson of foreboding setting the scene for a disturbing tale.
Of Jewish descent, the woman is moving to the place where her forebears were born, and from whence they had fled in cruel times; the spectre of a turbulent ancestral past hovering over the land that her brother has purchased. Alone since his wife and children left, he needs looking after, and tempts his sister with boasts of an affluent lifestyle, the plain truth being that he knows she has nothing better to do. Her days have been spent working as an audio typist, inhabiting an austere studio apartment, with neither partner nor children. Having spent her formative years caring for her many siblings and absorbed in domesticity, the woman feels that this is her destiny. Her beloved brother needs her, and she will once more don the ‘skin of a sister’, and serve him, all the while trying to be ‘good’.
Assuming the mantle of housekeeper is easy but the woman can’t shake the feeling that something is awry, and is intuitively resistant to visiting the nearby town. This changes when her brother leaves on a business trip, lack of provisions necessitate a trip to the shops and, as she tells us, ‘Certain things arise’.
One of the stars on the Granta Best Young British Novelist list, Bernstein gives us a tale of tantalising ambiguity that demands the utmost attention. Her story of hints and sinister suggestion begins to gain momentum when the woman visits the town shop, only to be greeted with blank indifference. She is practically invisible to these people with their ‘closed white faces.’ At least, initially.
‘I cannot now explain what impelled me to go into the forest that night.’
It’s a compulsion that finds her weaving talismans from the forest grasses and leaving them on local residents’ doorsteps as gifts. While awaiting the recipients’ response, a sequence of inexplicable and disturbing events precipitates a wave of animosity and fear from the townsfolk. The woman is now conclusively an outsider.
An excellent exploration of alienation, Study of Obedience considers how this introspective character may have internalised her familial refugee history, in this case taking the form of docility and subjugation.
Bernstein’s novel is prefaced with a telling quote by the artist, Paula Rego.
‘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.’
Maybe our outsider is tired of being good.
A compelling and distinctive read.
Study for Obedience by Sarah Bernstein is published by Granta, 208 pages.