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Persistence of the past informs Booker-listed novel

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Persistence of the past informs Booker-listed novel

Published: 8 August 2023

Last updated: 5 March 2024

SARAH BERNSTEIN’S Study for Obedience has a female Jewish narrator who moves to an unidentified place of her ancestors, raising questions about identity, belonging and rootlessness.

When 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 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, long-listed last week 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.

Bernstein says she made a deliberate decision to leave out 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.”

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

Photo: Cover design from Study for Obedience

The Jewish Independent acknowledges Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples as the Traditional Owners and Custodians of Country throughout Australia. We pay our respects to Elders past and present, and strive to honour their rich history of storytelling in our work and mission.

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