Sarah Bernstein wanted to take the idea of a “people pleaser” and flip it on its head.
The Montreal-born, Scotland-based author set out to craft a character so submissive that the effect would be sinister rather than pleasing.
Her efforts, born in part from her complicated relationship with the concept of compliance, resulted in Study for Obedience, a short novel published by Knopf Canada that’s landed on the short lists of both the Scotiabank Giller Prize in Canada and the Booker Prize in the United Kingdom.
“In my own personality, I’ve always existed at the sort of extreme tension point of those two things – being really conciliatory and absolutely refusing to participate,” she said in a recent video call.
“They seem incompatible, or they should be incompatible.”
But for Bernstein, they co-existed. Like many women, she said, she grew up feeling societal pressure to be conciliatory.
“That’s very difficult to program yourself out of,” she said. “But I always had a streak of refusal or resistance, and could never really understand how the two things came together.”
The unnamed protagonist of Study for Obedience brings that tension to life, turning dutiful deference into a form of defiance in her rambling stream-of-consciousness narration.
The narrator moves to a remote country to serve as her brother’s housekeeper and tends to his every need: chopping wood for his fire, cooking his meals, reading to him as she bathes him. She is reviled in the unnamed town where they live because of her Jewish heritage, and comes to be blamed for a series of tragedies that befall farm animals.
When her brother becomes ill, the balance of power in their relationship seems to shift, though she never stops serving him.
“It’s a kind of extreme embracing of the idea of obedience to such an extent that … it’s sort of pushed out of its skin.”
Bernstein was particularly interested in how the tools of oppression could be flipped, used by the oppressed against their oppressor.
“That depends on the ways that these structures are harmful to everybody,” Bernstein said. “Even the people who ostensibly benefit from them the most, I think they, too, are damaged by them. Not as much, but to an extent.”
The jury for the $100,000 Giller Prize, set to be handed out at a televised ceremony in Toronto on Nov. 13, describes Bernstein’s book as “equal parts poisoned and sympathetic” in its exploration of the effects of subjugation.
“It’s an unexpected and fanged book, and its own studied withholdings create a powerful mesmeric effect,” they wrote in their citation.
The novel – Bernstein’s second – is up against four other books: Birnam Wood by Eleanor Catton, published by McClelland & Stewart; The Double Life of Benson Yu by Kevin Chong, published by Atria Books; The Islands: Stories by Dionne Irving, published by Catapult; and All the Colour in the World by CS Richardson, published by Knopf Canada.
Bernstein is also the sole Canadian finalist for this year’s Booker Prize. The winner, deemed the best work of long-form fiction written in English, will be named Nov. 26.
Bernstein has had to adjust to the accolades. Her first book, The Coming Bad Days, received little attention, perhaps in part because it was published during the first half of 2021 when the COVID-19 pandemic prevented the usual publicity events that surround a book launch.
“The only two events that I did were over Zoom,” she recalled.
The plaudits for Study for Obedience came as something of a surprise, she said, because it isn’t very different from her debut. Both examine separateness and femininity, and neither is particularly plot-driven.
“It’s a style of writing that people are encountering that they may not have encountered before, because it’s less focused on narrative,” she said. “That doesn’t tend to be the case with books that have a wide readership.”