top of page
Sarah Bernstein.jpg

Image: Alice Meikle

Sarah Bernstein

Author of Study for Obedience

In Sarah Bernstein’s world of Obedience nothing is as it seems, though ultimately, everything is exactly as it is. 

A woman “not in on the great joke of life” arrives to her brother’s home in a cold, remote northern country—“the country, it transpired, of our family’s ancestors”—and strange things begin to happen: “It was a swift and menacing time. One of the local dogs was having a phantom 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. Certain things began to arise. The pigs came later though not much, and even if I had only recently arrived, had no livestock-caretaking responsibilities, had only been in to look, safely on one side of the electric fence, I knew they were right to hold me responsible. But all that as I said came later.” 

Between these lines exists another story—one of, among many things—abuse and survival. 

The brother's house is "storied and ancient", once belonging to the “distinguished leaders of the historic crusade against our forebears”. Despite not speaking the language the narrator attempts to integrate herself into the local community, which leads to hostility and mirrors a youth spent in service to her older siblings: “From childhood I felt always on some precipice, reaching for a state of grace, ever unattainable to me, always on the point of falling.” 

Early in the novel the unnamed narrator shares that throughout her life “people frequently unburdened themselves to me, telling me their most harrowing stories, the most appalling secrets of their inner lives, the whole litany of crimes and violations they had committed against others, and they told it all on the slightest acquaintance, on some occasions within moments of meeting.” She reciprocates with her own confessions and experiences, and readers learn of mysterious dolls woven from herbs and grasses, gunshots that ring out in the “blue gloaming of the early hours”, skinned rabbits, dogs howling in unison across precise intervals of the day, intensely uncomfortable encounters with the locals, and occasions, in the narrator’s girlhood, of unfaltering obedience. 


Obedience possesses a rare magic: It becomes an entirely new book upon each reading. Details and events in the narrator's past are presented like the layers of colour in a photograph of one’s aura. Images transform like the dark shapes beneath a frozen lake. What are you seeing? What have you missed? What might disappear upon the second reading, and what might surface on the third? The atmosphere is folkloric, gothic (the narrator’s inflections evoke the spirit of Merricat from We Have Always Lived in the Castle; the author confirms that Shirley Jackson was an influence) but what Bernstein does in these pages is masterful in its own right, and though the story is ultimately more human than supernatural—a portrait of “presence and absence twisting together”—it lingers long after you leave it, like a haunting. 

Sarah and I discuss the writing of her award winning novel, and the fortuitous nature of finding yourself in one place, only to turn up in another.

Girls on the Page

What is your earliest memory of literature—which books captured your interest, what compelled you to begin writing stories of your own? 

Sarah Bernstein

I read a lot as a kid thanks to the public and school libraries in Montreal and to my parents who took me to them and filled our home with books. I’m not sure I have an earliest memory, but the books I remember now all seem to take place in the countryside at night, with images of a big moon seen behind the branches of dark trees—The Ghost-Eye TreeA Dark, Dark TaleHershl and the Hanukkah Goblin. I always told myself stories as a way of making sense of the world, of staving off fear and anxiety about it or about other people. And I started writing my own stories, I think, as soon as I could write. Some were invented, some tried to imitate books I was reading. From an early age it was how I encountered the world and articulated my thoughts about it. 

I felt a parallel universe thrumming between each sentence of Study for Obedience, like the dark shapes which move beneath the ice of the freshwater lake that the narrator observes. 

I loved what you said in a previous interview, about writing “through the sound of a line”. 

Can you share more about this approach? 

That’s a beautifully phrased question. It is something I realised about my approach only after The Coming Bad Days came out and I had to find a language to talk about my writing process. I start with a phrase, a few words, and follow the logic of sound suggested by that phrase—its rhythms, its cadences. In this way a voice emerges, a character takes shape, and the story unspools from there. The initial phrase also suggests an atmosphere, a few ideas about setting, that I have in mind while I work, but I don’t usually have a set plan for the series of events that make up the plot. 

What did the early days of writing Study for Obedience look like? Where were you writing from, and did you have an idea of what you wanted the book to accomplish? 

There are sections of the novel that I wrote before I knew I was writing a novel—I published them as poems or as microfiction. It took me a while to realise I was writing in the same voice. I had just moved to the remote place where I now live. My job contract at a university was coming to an end, and at the time it didn’t look like I’d get another one. I was babysitting a couple of local children who seemed to sense my incompetence and doing odd days helping to feed the animals or cut back gorse at my partner’s workplace. Everyone I knew seemed to have a much stronger sense of the shape of the present and future of their own lives. I started writing, as I often do, out of a sense that I needed to find some way to get my own back. And so I leaned into this character, her pursuit of abjection, the way she embraces bringing out other people’s atavistic desire to bite at the heels of the runt of the litter. Those were the early days. As her character asserted itself, I understood that the writing was helping me to think through and articulate ideas I had about history, about inheritance, about familial, generational orders, about the process of inhabiting gender. 

A follow-up question, mostly for my own curiosity—did you feel as though you were leading the book, or the book’s characters and events were leading you?

Sometimes it does feel as though language takes its own directions. But I know now that is only possible as a result of all the work, conscious and unconscious, that happens before and during the process. Like many people, I have a vexed relationship to work, and writing as work, due in large part to the perpetual running down of the ‘value’ of the humanities by the people in charge of our world. So the lackey part of me sometimes awakens to tell me I should feel guilty for being unproductive, for wasting my time and the time of other people and the time of my employer reading and writing and even (god forbid) merely thinking. I have to remind myself that productivity is not something I’ve ever aspired to, it’s not something I admire in other people, and it’s not, as far as I am concerned, a useful metric for measuring anything meaningful in one’s life. (Unless we’re taking about the growing of vegetables or fruit or trees, which is one of the most joyful things in the world. But that happens very slowly, too.) I have to remind myself that reading, watching, observing—all that is part of the work, just as any fallow periods in between, where it seems like nothing is happening, but so much is happening—all the subtle connections and so on—is part of the work. 

Study for Obedience.png

Obedience is a complex story, told through the lens of a very complex narrator. How did it feel to spend the time that you did with this character, inside of this world? 


I took what you might call a savage pleasure in spending time in the mind of this character, in elucidating all her worst impulses, her self-justifications, and also all the ways she takes pleasure in language, in the language of her own story. For her, storytelling is how she works to figure out what she is trying to figure out. She believes, at the beginning, that the story is a story about her brother, but as she unfolds her narrative, she begins to see that their relationship cannot be understood in isolation from the past and the present that has helped to structure it. I tried to find an appropriate form for these circumlocutions, and I had the idea of a spiral, a looping movement towards an empty centre. I enjoyed patterning the story with this idea loosely in mind, using different kinds of repetitions and elisions. 

Can you share how setting—whether travelling and discovering a new place, or returning to a land you know very well—informs your writing? 

I am a great walker. I had this experience, when I first moved to Edinburgh, where I was walking home from somewhere, on a route I knew but hadn’t taken that many times, and I arrived somewhere that wasn’t my home, but I nonetheless felt as if I had arrived at the place I had meant to. I had been walking somewhat absentmindedly, thinking about something, or listening to music, and I wondered then if my body was remembering some walk I knew well from the last place I lived in, the walk from work to home in a different city. It was a moment where I felt very keenly something I always knew, which is that the body is the centre of thought, and the body holds the past, all these different temporalities, memories, places, living alongside one another. Sometimes coming to a new place, or taking a bus, or walking down the road or across the bog shakes something loose about places I’ve been before and the relationship between the present and the past. 

“I wanted to be good in a terrible world.”
—Sarah Bernstein, Study for Obedience

Do you tend to abstain from consuming fiction while writing fiction, or can you still indulge in pleasure reading while working on a novel? Which movies, books, or songs inspired you while writing Obedience

I do a lot of reading before beginning to write, which includes fiction, but slightly less during the writing process itself. This is only because I am using a different part of my brain, rather than any anxiety of influence. I am anxious about a great many things, but admitting that I am influenced by other writers is not one of them. Reading texts by other writers enriches my work and my life rather than impoverishing it, and I often think of my writing as a process of bringing together of all the things I’ve read seen and learnt—it belongs to me only in a very limited way. Some of the things I had been reading are included in the bibliography at the end of the novel, though there are almost certainly other works which made their mark without my realising it. I read a lot of Marie NDiaye and Shirley Jackson; Leslie Marmon Silko, Walt Whitman. I was also reading essays by Édouard Glissant and Susan Sontag. 

Are you in constant conversation with the authorial self—do you yearn to write when you are not writing, do you participate in the everyday behind a lens of writerly observation, perhaps jotting down a word or dialogue that might end up in a draft? Is stepping back into everyday life, re-entering the world after a good writing spell, ever a difficult adjustment?

For me, the process of understanding the world is also always a process of storytelling. The stories we have access to, and the stories we tell, shape our experience of the world in important ways. I don’t see much of a division between the part of me that writes and the part of me that lives and acts in the world in that respect. There are moments when I’m more receptive to translating or transforming experience into writing, maybe, but I have always had a tendency to observe rather than to participate. Part of this is shyness, part of it is wanting to understand things before speaking. I’ve always been that way. I remember being about 10 or 11 and deciding I was going to start reading the newspaper. I got to a news item about Lebanon, and I remember being frustrated at my lack of understanding, and wondering how I could get to the beginning of the news and in that way make sense of what I had read. I’m acutely aware of how insufficient my knowledge and experience of the world is, and my continuous learning only reifies a kind of radical doubt in me. I’ve often wished I could be a different kind of person, someone who is more in the world and feels confident in their position, and I have worked hard to compensate in that direction in various ways. But the truth is I still spend most of my days on my own living in a very remote place, and now on my own in a very remote place with my four-month-old, writing to make sense of things.    

“In the bowl of the lake, my voice came back to me, and it sounded closely – it was more intimate than ever. I spoke and listened to myself at length as I watched the dark shapes move under the thinning ice. I cannot say whether I was ever overheard while I occupied myself in this way: if I had been, it would have been only one behavior among many others, truthfully or falsely reported, that would later be held against me.”

—Sarah Bernstein, Study for Obedience

From being nominated for the Booker Prize to winning the Giller, what is your relationship to Study for Obedience now that is has assumed a (very accomplished and active) life in the hands of judges, reviewers, and readers? 

More than anything else, it made me understand how arbitrarily value is ascribed to particular literary texts. And how changeable the ascription of that value is. I always liked Study for Obedience. I always thought I had written an interesting, sometimes difficult, sometimes beautiful book. But at first it didn’t seem like anyone was going to publish it. Most publishers turned it down. Nicely, but they turned it down. People said the character wasn’t relatable enough, that the events of the story were too opaque. The message I was getting was that the book didn’t fulfill readerly expectations in terms of external plot and in terms of ‘relatability’. And it’s true I have very little interest in relatability. It is also not the first time I’ve failed to live up to other people’s expectations. From the initial response, it seemed like the questions I was asking, and the way I was asking them, were not the questions most people were interested in. So I was frankly (and pleasantly) surprised when Granta took it. It did not therefore occur to me the book might even be considered for, let alone win, a major prize. I’m happy the judges read my book so carefully, and I’m grateful that audiences who might not ever have found the book will read it, maybe even reading it in translation. But I have never written with a view to pleasing an imagined audience. I write to think and to communicate my thinking and the form that thinking takes. I never had what they call notions about my writing or how it would be received.

Modern day technologies such as high-speed Internet, on-demand streaming services, social media, Microsoft Teams, and earbuds exist in the world of the novel. The narrator cannot speak or understand the local tongue, but if she really needed or wanted to, she could connect with someone, somewhere at the touch of a button.

How did you arrive at the decision (and why was it important?) to incorporate these

details—had you always intended for the novel to be set in the present day? 

I had always intended the novel to be set in the present day, but I also wanted the novel to feel out of time, in a way. There are different kinds of temporality in the book—the cycle of the seasons, the cycle of history, all of it living inside the present tense of the narrator’s experience. The past doesn’t just sit alongside the present—it is present, too. So the way the narrator tells her story in a formal, somewhat old fashioned register rubs up against the details of the technology that also subtly shapes the world around her. It creates a kind of friction. More broadly I was interested in showing how the conditions of the present and the past weigh on this character in a particular way but are not exclusive to her and her forebears. She comes to understand this towards the end of the novel when she situates her own grief on a ‘scale of time that was longer than a lifetime, wider than a country, vaster than the story of the exile of a single people’. Jewish history did not begin with the Shoah, just as the conditions already existed and continue to exist that enable people to do horrible things to one another—the Shoah, terribly, has what Pankaj Mishra describes as a ‘universal salience’ and finds a parallel in the ongoing histories of colonisation.

This novel is powerfully anamorphic. I imagine there were many details to consider as you were writing and rewriting. On a technical level, I’m curious whether/how much of the narrator’s voice or the story’s direction changed during the editing process? 

I had to look up anamorphic—a new word for me. Thank you. To be honest, I can’t really remember.

I don’t think the voice changed that much, but the narrator’s concerns certainly evolved over the course of the writing. I knew roughly where I wanted to open the story and roughly how I wanted it to end, so much of the work was figuring out how she would get from one point to the other. 

What is the last great sentence that you’ve read? (Or your favourite sentence of all time?)


One of my favourite sentences in all of literature is from Samuel Beckett’s Malone Dies: “Let me say before I go any further that I forgive nobody.”

Can you recommend three books a reader might enjoy, similar in either topic or tone, for when they are done reading Study for Obedience?

I am the Brother of XX by Fleur Jaeggy, trans. Gini Alhadeff

YES, I AM A DESTROYER by Mira Mattar

That Time of Year by Marie NDiaye, trans. Jordan Stump


What has been a recent source of inspiration, or joy?

This, from Bhanu Kapil’s The Vertical Interrogation of Strangers:

As if our responsibilities to each other end at the border of our 

countries, or at our cities, or half-way across our cities, or at our 

back doors, or at our skins. No. 

Sarah Bernstein is the author of The Coming Bad Days and Study for Obedience, which was shortlisted for the Booker Prize, won the Giller Prize, and was longlisted for the Highland Book Prize. She is from Montreal and lives in the Scottish Highlands.

To buy copies of Study for Obedience, consider supporting one of Sarah’s favourite book stores: 

The Ceilidh Place BookshopUllapool BookshopLighthouse, Edinburgh’s Radical Bookshop

Good PressTypewronger Books.

Interview by Emma Leokadia Walkiewicz

© Girls on the Page 2024

bottom of page