Review: Sarah Bernstein’s Study for Obedience
April, 2024
Kiana Sarmadi, Contributor
Kiana Sarmadi is a writer based in Ontario, Canada.
Characters often want a measure of innocence and active strive for the common reader to bond with them. One must only look at the wave of railings and sneers aimed at poor Fanny Prices of literature—those pale wallflowers suffering mutely beyond the more pronounced personas—to confirm this. But, you may say, Fanny is an innocent, quiet thing; her guilt in not pleasing others as she is taught to is only a product of her own mind, warped and bent by years of servitude and obedience. Should this not make her more endearing to the reader? Should we not follow her fate with more eagerness than that of the arch and coquettish Miss Crawford? 

But the readers and the critics alike find her odious for her meekness and passivity, or her “insipidness” (as Austen’s own mother declared). This timid fragile maiden, “a charmless heroine,” as one critic writes, “who was not made to be loved,” seems to have endured as much scorn under the eyes of the common reader as in the hands of the brutal Bertrams of her world. 

Writers, like Austen, who create such quiet and inhibited characters often shy away from giving these characters a voice. The rather distanced third omniscient narrator seems like an easier voice to lure the reader into attention or some semblance of care for such a protagonist. But what if a writer could give this diffident hand the pen? What language would she speak in and where could she take you, her sullen irritated reader?

The pen that leads you in Sarah Bernstein’s Study for Obedience shares the same temperament as Fanny’s: guilt-stricken, uncertain, obsessed, confined. She is descended from the line of twentieth century heroes (Gustav von Aschenbach, Jay Gatsby, Clarissa Dalloway, etc.) with their modest desires and rather uneventful lives. What differentiates her from these bunch, though, is her coy vengeance, her absurd but carefully concealed humour and lies, her way of deforming the language, her quiet victory. 

It is a slow, claustrophobic and dense path, blocks of prose colliding with each other and our nameless guide, invisible (to the extent that even the automatic door sensors have difficulty registering her movements), loathed even by those whose secrets she faithfully guards and orders she meticulously follows, metamorphoses into something other—something more tangible, dominant but also dangerous. 

The cruel land that cocoons her, where her ancestors had been burned and murdered, is now unreadable and entirely foreign. But it is in this mystery, in her growing seclusion, that she gains a streak of awareness and some gnawing thing in her quietens:


“It was as if I had been living my life against the backdrop of a roaring noise that I had not known was there and that had ceased suddenly and absolutely. My perceptions turned outward. I saw the grass grow, I saw it growing, I saw the green changing, noticed the new heights reached by the branches. I paid such close attention. It was disorienting to walk in the woods day after day, to mark the astonishing and impossible changes from one day to the next. I was dizzy with it all. I felt as though I were remembering something I had forgotten.”

Her solitary excursions in this decaying sanguinary country slowly awakens her and she points her blade not only at its hateful people or her demanding brother but also at you, her reader.

The excruciatingly slow and absurdly funny transformation of this faceless and reserved voice is so vaguely hinted at throughout the text that the reader will eventually find herself hypnotically ensnared in it.

The narrator is as suspicious of her reader as she is of the people surrounding her in her world; her digressions and pensive wanderings are all suggestive of her awakening to the more concrete nature of herself and the cruelty of her surroundings, yet she never entirely trusts her reader to share with her in a confiding manner. She is aware of her lack of social charisma, her unpopularity, the disagreeable nature of her character, her perceived guilt, and she begins and moves through her narrative gingerly and self-consciously.

When you pick up this book, keep your wits about you, you will need them. Bernstein’s study into obedience and guilt is not a mere abstract text, giving you a distanced narrator unaware of your reproachful gaze—she is taking you in and you will end up with her looking down at you from the dais.   

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