Life & Culture

Jewish author Sarah Bernstein's novel about rise of xenophobia makes 2023 Booker Prize longlist

The author's book is called Study For Obedience


The author Sarah Bernstein has been longlisted for the 2023 Booker Prize for her second novel, Study for Obedience, which features a Jewish narrator.

The bold and unsettling Study for Obedience, published in July, explores themes of prejudice, guilt and criminality from the perspective of an unnamed Jewish narrator.

Bernstein, who is Jewish and whose grandparents came from Eastern Europe and lost family members in the Holocaust, has described her preoccupation with roots and rootlessness, and explores the complicated question of where she comes from through the book’s narrator. 

The novel sees the narrator join her recently separated brother, who has moved to a manor house in a remote northern country – the name of which is not given - where their Jewish ancestors were persecuted, and face the townspeople’s growing hostility.

Commenting on her decision not to name the country, Bernstein told the JC: “Although everybody seems to be reading into the Jewish aspect and placing it somewhere in Eastern Europe, and obviously this is something I’m interested in because of my family history… I wanted to generalise it a bit.

The author also explored “the persistence of the past and the way the present collapses into the past and vice versa.”

However, she does not regard her novel as inherently Jewish. She said: “I wouldn't want to over-determine it for readers. I know that there are readers who are not going to pick up on that at all, and that's fine.”

Born in Montreal, 36-year-old Bernstein lives in the Scottish Highlands, and is a lecturer in modern and contemporary literature at Strathclyde University.

Her debut novel, The Coming Bad Days, was published in 2021. In April, she was championed as one of the best young British novelists by Granta magazine, whose list has previously included Martin Amis, Salman Rushdie and Zadie Smith.

Bernstein attended a secular Jewish day school in Montreal where she learnt Hebrew and Yiddish and read books about the Holocaust from a young age.

The Booker Prize is the world’s most influential award for fiction published in the UK in English. Bernstein is up against 12 other authors on the Booker long list including Sebastian Barry, for Old God’s Time, and Tan Twon Eng, for The House of Doors.

The shortlist of six will be announced on September 21, with the winner revealed on November 26.

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