Study for Obedience by Sarah Bernstein - review by Michael Delgado

Michael Delgado

Paranormal Activity

Study for Obedience

By

Granta Books 192pp £12.99
 

The most famous pronouncement of the medieval mystic Julian of Norwich, repeated in various guises throughout Revelations of Divine Love, is ‘All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well.’ T S Eliot flavoured this expression of devotion with a characteristically modernist sprinkling of doubt in Four Quartets, in which the words ‘All shall be well, and/All manner of thing shall be well’ are broken in half over two lines. When the narrator of Sarah Bernstein’s second novel, Study for Obedience, invokes Julian, she does so with a tentativeness that fits the prevailing mood of this strange and beautiful novel. It comes two thirds of the way through, after the unnamed narrator, who is the only real character in the novel, has just witnessed a cultish ritual taking place in the town where she is staying. A group of locals has just buried the ‘reed men’, or ‘grass talismans’, the narrator has woven in the tradition of her ancestors, an ‘obscure though reviled people’ who have been persecuted throughout history. ‘All might still be well,’ she tells us. ‘Perhaps all manner of things might after all be well.’

There is very little certainty in this novel. We know that the narrator’s ancestors are Jewish: the word is used a handful of times and she at one point recalls her mother making kishke and gefilte fish. But beyond that there is vagueness. The narrator has come to an unidentified ‘remote northern country’, whose language she does not speak and whose people mistrust her, to stay with her brother (also a nameless presence in the novel and one whose speech is never quoted directly, only relayed second-hand), whose wife and children have recently ‘decamped to Lugano … without a word and so far as he could tell permanently and perhaps even in the dead of night’. The period is also difficult to ascertain. At times it feels as though we are in a present-day dystopia and there are passing references to Twitter and YouTube, but for the most part the book feels historical: the archaic gender dynamics, the narrator’s obsession with goodness and decorum, and, perhaps most significantly, the writing itself, which at points takes on the confessional, florid texture of an 18th-century novel:

Where to begin. I can it is true shed light on my actions only, and even then it is a weak and intermittent one. I was the youngest child, the youngest of many – more than I care to remember – whom I tended from my earliest infancy,

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