At first, I thought I was reading it wrong – the youngest sibling is a “faithful and perennial servant”? Didn’t we all know that it is they who have it easiest? But Sarah Bernstein’s Study for Obedience is an unusual book and life follows a strange order. The unnamed narrator is servile and always has been – we don’t know how old she, is but we’re told she is detested and reluctantly tolerated by her family and peers. Even her parents were prone to forgetting her and her teachers at school had been enthusiastic bullies.

Employed at a law firm where she is tasked to produce transcripts for her lawyer colleagues, her job is undemanding and unambitious. She goes about it mechanically – careful to avoid grammatical errors and adhering to self-imposed deadlines. She takes to the position naturally when she’s called to a “remote northern country” to run her eldest brother’s household. She cleans the house, chops firewood, and keeps the household running. But her brother soon departs – without explanation – and she’s left alone with his dog Bert in a place that is not just unfamiliar but openly hostile to her.

The rejection

It is an odd year. The sow had conceived with great difficulty but the piglets were soon “eradicated”. The gentle cows turned mad and their owner who, seeing no recourse, had to slaughter them. A strange woman accused Bert, neutered and sickly, of impregnating her bitch. These inexplicable occurrences take place at a feverish speed upon her arrival. She does not understand or speak the language of the locals, and her alien ways are beyond the understanding of this tightly-knit community. Mothers cover their children’s eyes when she passes, and at a cafe, unable to speak the language, the narrator points at a woman’s coffee cup which results in the woman bursting into tears while other customers surreptitiously make the sign of the cross.

Unwanted all her life, she has figured out that everyone here – absolute strangers – detests her. Or at the very least, are fearful of her. She may look just like any of them, but they seem to be suspicious of her faith. Or in a more fundamental way, of her roots. There are no geophysical indicators of where the “remote northern country” might be, but the narrator describes it as the place where her ancestors were “put into pits” – a clear indication that they were subjected to something sinister. A genocide? Since the narrator is Jewish, it may have been the Holocaust.

It’s a futile attempt to locate the “country” because, in every way, it emulates the worst – poor healthcare services, xenophobia, and an obsessive desire for purity. The narrator is affected by the hostility of strangers and by history, which no longer seems to trouble their conscience. Alone and abandoned, their hate is her “inheritance”.

The undoing

The narrator, rejected as a resident, settles into the role of a visitor. She continues her transcriber’s job while taking up odd voluntary roles in the community. Her brother turns up – giving no explanation for his disappearance – but he’s a shell of who he used to be. His hair is thinning, he becomes averse to washing up, and he has lost the authority he once commanded (rather demanded). The narrator says her brother had strictly prohibited closing doors, even when he – or she – was changing and now, without warning, he’d close himself in his room and avoid his sister’s care and devotion. It is odd to think of two bodies – related by the condition of birth – to be in such intimate proximity to each other. Why does the brother need to see the sister at all times and why is she not granted privacy in her own room?

There are no overt descriptions of abuse – in the past or present – but her unquestioning obedience is a sign of something being not quite right. If the dog is crippled by old health and sickness, the narrator is by her atypical childhood and inability to speak up. Her queerness – which perhaps would have been a big deal in a rural community – becomes non-essential against the suspicion she arouses. When the brother falls ill, the narrator, instead of respecting his wish to be left alone, doubles down in her caregiver’s role. The excessive obedience starts to appear menacing and one cannot help but wonder if this is her moment of reckoning – to undo the negligence and hostility that has followed her all her life.

Study for Obedience is written in dense, multi-clause sentences and paragraphs that spill into many pages. The breathless quality of Bernstein’s prose sucks the reader right into this cold, strange world and it’s hard to break away from it. Her writing is rich and a marvel of the craft – Bernstein is an exceptional talent. The Booker Prize green-signalling Study for Disobedience to the shortlist, at this moment in history, seems to be a considered decision – it warns us of the fatal consequences of hostility towards outsiders and the retaliation after they have been overlooked and ignored for all their lives.

Study for Obedience, Sarah Bernstein, Granta Books.