Book Review: Study for Obedience — Sarah Bernstein

The Trick Is To Keep Blogging
3 min readOct 28, 2023

This is one of the shortest novels I’ve read. The hardback edition, half-size and stretched into 200 pages, is still readable in an evening, even for such a slow reader as me. So it’s quite impressive how expansive this book feels. Not a sentence is wasted: the plot is told in fragments which are scattered around the ruminations which make up its bulk.

Our central character feels both familiar and completely unique. While it’s far from unusual for a short literary novel to focus on a solitary depressive unnamed character, Study for Obedience feels different in that this character is not remotely interested in herself — even in her own misery. She tries desperately to sideline herself in her own story, bound by an ennui so intense that it reduces her to a spectral presence. In one of the less subtle moments (therefore the one I picked up on), an automatic door’s sensor fails to pick her up — she has to wait for someone else to come along.

And yet to the wider world, she is hugely visible. She arrives in a new country, probably somewhere in Scandinavia, to look after her wealthy brother in the wake of his divorce. This is the latest stretch of servitude in a lifetime of obedience, but more significantly, an obedience which the narrator accepts as justified, inevitable, the right way to treat someone who is fundamentally useless. And while she’s reduced to a servant by her family, she is treated with abject hostility by everyone else, as the result of her Jewishness, yes, as the result of historical forces, but the narrator implies that there is something more intrinsically hateable about herself.

I read this as an exploration of how internalised self-hatred operates. The xenophobia she experiences isn’t invented, but the sense of universalised oppression, the sense of utter uselessness, the detached disgust with which she regards herself, is a product of the mind which tells the story. And I was never quite sure whether to believe her as a narrator or not, particularly as the dark omens begin to happen — fields of cows going mad, a dog having a phantom pregnancy, its owner turning up at the same time every week to stand threateningly outside. Then the narrator creates several wiccan dolls and lays them on the doorsteps of the town — without even being sure why, we’re told. Is there something more at play here? I couldn’t quite figure it out, but thankfully, in an interview, Sarah Bernstein has said that she wanted to explore how obedience could contain within it a power, even a malignant power.

I appreciate when authors discuss openly what they were trying to do with a book, and I think she succeeded in this. The sense of dread/threat/hatred (OK, I’ll say it: the Kafkaesque) is constructed so effortlessly, and in such sparse prose, and the overall effect is mesmerising. And there’s something to be said for books which can be read in one sitting, too, in terms of the immersion of a reader. Something so bleak and foreboding isn’t designed to be an enjoyable read, but I enjoyed it all the same.