Of the four books from the 2023 Booker Prize longlist that I already had or treated myself to, I picked the shortest one to read first. (The others I have are In Ascension, The Bee Sting, and Prophet Song by the way.)
Study for Obedience by Sarah Bernstein
Bernstein, a Canadian living in Scotland is on Granta’s latest list of the Best of Young British Writers; they widened the criteria this year to include those who call Britain their home, instead of just those with British passports.
In the novel, a young woman relocates to the country of her ancestors to be housekeeper to her older brother whose wife has left him. She discovers what it feels like to be an incomer in this remote community, and as some weird events happen to coincide with her arrival, she is treated with increasing suspicion.
It sounded a great premise, and the book opens evocatively…
It was the year the sow eradicated her piglets. It was a swift and menacing time. One of the local dogs was having a phamtom 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.
From that beginning, I expected a voyage of discovery on behalf of the woman and the locals as they get to know each other, maybe tinged with an element of ‘you’re not from round ‘ere’ folk horror.
But no. No sooner than she arrives, than her brother is off on a business trip for several weeks. She spends the time putting the house in order, taking long walks, and doing some of her own work (thanks to the internet she can still work as an audio-transcriber for a homeland legal firm). It’s not until she’s running out of provisions that she walks to the store in the village. She discovered she doesn’t speak the same language, and has to communicate by pointing to the storekeeper.
She volunteers to help at a community farm project, and they let her, but it doesn’t go smoothly with the lack of shared language, and her inexperience with animals. After a traumatic experience trying to untangle a pregnant ewe who was trapped in some fencing and went into labour, she was pulled aside and just walked away. ‘my first act of deliberate disobedience since arriving…’. It’s after this incident just over a third of the way through the novel that she notices suspicion about her increasing, she was being held responsible for the ewe.
… it was clear even so that I I was being accused of wrongdoing, but in a manner and language I could not understand and so could not address. It was a familiar feeling: wherever I had been in my life I was always an incomer, an offlanderk sometimes a usurper, more rarely a conniver, it was something in my blood that made me feel this way and likewise something in my blood that made others feel this too, that I was strange somehow, not to be trusted.
We find out very little about the narrator or her brother. Neither are named, nor any other characters. All we know is that her forebears were Jewish, as it is mentioned early on. We do know that she speaks a handful of languages, but just can’t seem to master this one! We know what she does for a living and that it is a task that can be done alone, but we have no idea of her brother’s business dealings which appear shady although there is no evidence to base that on.
Added to that, with the local unease, the narrator turns inwards. The navel-gazing becomes intense, yet we still learn little else about her bar a few scenes from her childhood. This vagueness just drove me mad I’m afraid, and although there is a resolution of sorts at the end of the novel, again that looked primarily inwards, although her initial obedience to everything and everyone does begin to dissipate slightly. I still couldn’t get to grips with her interiority and lack of interest in the outside world beyond.
The writing is undoubtedly well-crafted, and the narrator’s lack of oomph contrasts strongly with nature’s more visceral side in the various animal incidents, but in being a character study of an unfathomable woman (rather than classic unreliable narrator) and lack of much narrative drive, this wasn’t a book for me.
Source: Own copy. Granta hardback, 187 pages. BUY at Blackwell’s via my affiliate link (free UK P&P)