In the literary landscape, Sarah Bernstein emerges as a postmodernist voice, delving into the limitations of language, societal violence, historical connections, climate apocalypse, and the construction of the self within these complexities. Her debut novel, ‘The Coming Bad Days’ (2021), and the Booker Prize-shortlisted ‘Study for Obedience’ (2023) grapple with these very questions.

With phrases like "Language is punishment, encompassing all, where guilt defines transpired existence" (‘Study for Obedience’), and “It was a problem of language, of falling short, of what can be spoken and what must never be spoken” (‘The Coming Bad Days’), Bernstein echoes the decentering of language.

‘Study for Obedience’ opens with a disturbing and compelling statement: “I knew they were right to hold me responsible”. This declaration sets the stage for a story narrated by an unnamed Jewish woman, thrust into the English countryside to care for her brother's house.

In this unfamiliar setting, the protagonist grapples with the intricate layers of identity, self-perception, and societal expectations. Bernstein skillfully portrays the character's inner struggles, showcasing a sense of self-awareness and introspection.

The narrative navigates the protagonist's need for belonging, a theme intricately intertwined with servitude and the longing to be accepted. As the protagonist observes the natural rhythms of the countryside, they are confronted with the beauty and the hidden divisions of society.

The author masterfully captures the protagonist's sense of alienation and the conflict between their authentic self and the façade they present to the world. This struggle for authenticity and connection reverberates throughout the story, highlighting the universal human quest for meaning and belonging.

Bernstein's imagery in ‘Study for Obedience’ is both vivid and unsettling. The tale unfolds with disconcerting events, a sew losing its baby while stuck on a fence, bovine hysteria in the valley culminating in their culling, and a phantom pregnancy in a dog. The protagonist becomes entangled in these events, held responsible for occurrences.

These events serve as potent symbols, questioning consensus building, narratives, authority, interpolation, the violence individuals eventually impose upon themselves, reflecting the broader themes of community perceptions that makes the oppressed speak the language of the oppressor and the limitations of individualism.

Through the protagonist's attempts to integrate into the community by working diligently on the farm, Bernstein explores themes of rejection, antipathy, and existential despair. The story subtly challenges the notion of innocence, forcing readers to confront uncomfortable truths about complicity and complacency.

It is perhaps such interventions made by the author through storytelling which lets her extend solidarity with Adania Shibli, whose book ‘Minor Detail’ faced cancellation by the Frankfurt Book Fair in the wake of the extermination purported by the State of Israel on Palestine, further emphasising the shared struggle of women seeking meaning in a world marred by war and violence.

The imagery Bernstein creates in ‘Study for Obedience, to question the absurdities and the meanings they hold in relation to the lives around, is quite an achievement. In her book, Bernstein transforms the protagonist from a mere observer to the observed, whose very essence is violated for someone else's quest for power.

By doing this, acts in shifts of gaze, the narrative perspective underscores societal mores and the impact they have on lives in relation to them. Bernstein's exploration of historical traumas and their enduring impact on communities adds depth to the narrative, questioning the inexorable rapacity of ruptures caused by history.

While the author is successful in many parts, decentring of gender in totality in connection to language and its violence is something that perhaps goes missing. The narrative is still stuck within the boundaries of gender binary, a wall she will hopefully be able to study, break and trespass with disobedience.

‘Study for Obedience is a thought-provoking book that demands contemplation. Bernstein's style of writing, coupled with her exploration of identity, community, and the human psyche, elevates this novel to a work of art.

Through the protagonist's journey, readers are compelled to confront the complexities of existence, challenging preconceived notions and inviting introspection. Sarah Bernstein's latest novel is not just a story; it is a rumination on the human condition, urging readers to grapple with the questions it raises, making it an essential read.

Aabha Muralidharan, is an activist, writer, and photographer.