Life & Culture

The Jewish author on the road to greatness after being longlisted for Booker Prize

Sarah Bernstein’s second novel made the longlist for the Booker Prize this week, but she’s surprised to be in the literary limelight


When the academic, poet and novelist Sarah Bernstein, went to a retrospective of the Portuguese artist Paula Rego in Edinburgh in 2019, a quote on the wall caught her attention.

“She had said: ‘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.’

"And I knew immediately it was going to be something but didn’t know then what I wanted it to be,” Bernstein says, speaking on Zoom from her home in the Scottish Highlands.

“It’s such an interesting idea, that something as passive, or what we think of as passive, as obedience could actually be active and agential in some way.”

This dynamic forms the core of Bernstein’s unsettling and intense second novel, Study for Obedience, this week long-listed for the Booker Prize, in which an unnamed, female Jewish narrator moves to the remote, unspecified northern country of her ancestors — “a cold, faraway place” — to be housekeeper for her recently divorced brother.

She claims to have spent her life caring for others, always striving to achieve perfect obedience. But soon after her arrival, her brother goes away on business and a series of strange events occurs — cows become hysterical and must be culled, there is a potato blight and a dog exhibits a phantom pregnancy.

The locals direct their suspicions at her and, despite her attempts to assimilate, their fear and hostility only increase. When her brother eventually returns, he falls mysteriously ill. Has her obedience taken on “a kind of mysterious power,” she ponders, leading the reader also to question if she is taking revenge on those who have wronged her.

Despite hints that the novel is set in contemporary times (Microsoft Teams is mentioned for example) Bernstein says she made a deliberate decision to leave out particular markers of time and place.

“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, (Bernstein’s grandparents came from eastern Europe and her grandmother lost many members of her family in the Holocaust), but equally I wanted to generalise it a bit, almost in a fabular way so that it didn’t have to be too tightly tied to a specific place and time.”

Bernstein also wanted to explore “the persistence of the past and the way the present collapses into the past and vice versa.

“In that sense, she has this sort of arcane vocabulary and then talks about Teams.”
Bernstein, 36, a lecturer in modern and contemporary literature at Strathclyde University, grew up in Montreal, Quebec where she attended a secular Jewish day school, the Folks Shule, (the people’s school), learning Hebrew and Yiddish.

“From when we were young, we were reading books about the Holocaust — it was very present,” she says.

“I sometimes wonder what it means to keep it so present, to have a link to this great trauma. I was interested in [pursuing] that line of thinking in somebody who would take it to an extreme. So, this narrator has internalised the idea that there was a trauma, that she should not have survived.”

Does she perceive Study for Obedience as a Jewish novel? “I wouldn’t want to over-determine it for readers,” she says. “I know that there are readers who are not going to pick up on that at all because it’s just not in their frame of reference, and that’s fine.”

The book raises questions about identity, belonging and rootlessness: how you make a connection with a place you have never been to, a place where your family or ancestors might well have been murdered. Why did she choose to explore this now?

“I think it’s become more present for me as I got older and as I’ve spent more time away from the place that I was born and away from the people and the culture in which I was reared, I suppose,” she replies with a smile.

In 2019, Bernstein moved to the Highlands with her partner and thinks the experience of being the incomer to a small place — they live in the remote village of Achiltibuie — influenced her writing.

“People have been so lovely here and my experience has been the total opposite [of the narrator’s]” she assures me. “But still, there’s a bit of me where I’m like, well, what if it was different?

"What would this have been like if I was totally alien and my presence was antagonistic? Imagining what a character would do in that situation, carrying that historical baggage as well.”

There were other reasons too, she says, such as trying to understand how both Montreal and the Highlands could be home. “But neither of these places are the places where my grandparents are from.

"It’s this sort of strange in betweeny thing because how long do you have to be in a place to set down roots? How many generations? I don’t know.”

In her fiction, Bernstein’s interest is in capturing voice. “I work with sound, of the line and the voice,” she says.

“It’s almost like hearing a musical phrase and you have, let’s say, five words and you think, ‘OK, that’s the beginning of something’ and it gives you an idea. And that’s sort of how I progress, which is also why I write really slowly, because it takes me a long time to get from there to where I can discern what a story might be about or who this voice might belong to.”

Both Bernstein’s novels share introspective, first-person female narrators. It’s a literary style that “can seem quite hermetic but I do think that individual voice is the same as writing a vast historical novel.

"It’s just a question of scale. It’s one person’s experience of history, rather than a great sprawl.”

No one was more surprised than Bernstein when, earlier this year, she was named as one of Granta’s Best Young British Novelists.

“I was so taken aback,” she says, “It wasn’t on my radar at all. But obviously it’s really, really nice to think that there are people who value your writing.”

‘Study for Obedience’ (Granta) by Sarah Bernstein is out now

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