Sunday, September 10, 2023

A Study for Obedience, by Sarah Bernstein


Knopf Canada
193 pp


I meant to get this post done much sooner, but sadly another death has darkened our doorway so it's been a few rough weeks around here for the two of us.  But it's time to move forward.

The narrative in Study for Obedience is related by an unnamed narrator (whom we find out later is Jewish, which has more than a small amount of bearing on her story), who, as she reveals, was the youngest child in her family, and that since childhood, her role had been to provide her siblings 
"with the greatest possible succour, filling them up only so they could demand more, always more, demands to which I acceded with alacrity and discreet haste..." 
In other words, her life had been one of putting the needs of others ahead of her own, the consequences of which were her slide into a life of self denial and solitude, "pursuing silence to its ever-receding horizon."   She has no sense of belonging, and her "pursuit" of offering "the most careful consideration to the other, to treat the other as the worthiest object of contemplation" has left her "reduced, diminished..." and in her words, ceasing to exist.   It is not surprising then that when her brother calls her to come to his home because he needs someone to look after his house while he is away for long periods on business, that she accepts his request. His wife has left him, along with their children, and so for our narrator, it is a chance to live in seclusion and to "be quiet."  His house is in a "remote northern country" which happens to be where her "family's ancestors" had lived before being "dogged across borders and put into pits," and indeed was once owned by those who had led the "historic crusades" against them.  It is with her arrival that the story begins in earnest, especially once she decides to venture out into the town and discovers that the people, who seem to have no issues with her brother, want nothing at all to do with her. Perhaps, she thinks,  it is because she can't speak the local dialect. Anyway, for whatever reason, she decides to volunteer for community service by putting her name on a rota sheet of chores the locals share. Despite her misgivings afterwards about doing that, her brother sorts things out for her long distance, on condition that she does her work quietly and alone.  Not at all a problem for our narrator, but troubles begin just shortly after, when strange events alluded to at the beginning of this book start to happen, including a dog having a "phantom pregnancy," a sow who had "eradicated her piglets," and things that "were leaving one place and showing up in another." 

Just when I was convinced that we're venturing into a sort of folk horror zone here, the brother returns home not quite himself and there is a major shift that occurs which moves  Study for Obedience into different territory altogether, one which gets to the very heart of this book.  While I won't discuss what that shift is or exactly or how it comes about, suffice it to say that the novel deals with the acquisition, uses and misuses of power;  the complicity of silence and the weight of history, both personal and otherwise, are also key ideas that run throughout this novel.  And while not the horror story I thought it was going to be, this is still quite a disturbing tale that I couldn't stop thinking about for days after I'd finished reading it. 

It wasn't until the second time through that the proverbial light went on in my head.  While  Study for Obedience is short, coming in at just about 200 pages, it is most certainly not your average plot-driven novel requiring more time on my part to get through it.  Toward the end it becomes much more philosophical in nature than I had expected, making the reading a bit on the difficult side, and I'll be honest here -- it became a bit cumbersome languagewise for a while.    However, the patient reader is definitely rewarded and quite frankly, once I cottoned onto what was going on here, I was completely in awe at this author's talent, making it a book I can certainly recommend.  

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