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Dark, mesmerising world created at the heart of this week's Star Read

By Margaret Chrystall

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We never get to know the name of the woman who has come to be housekeeper for her rich, older brother in a country where she doesn’t speak the language, in this week’s Star Read.

Study For Obedience by Sarah Bernstein.
Study For Obedience by Sarah Bernstein.

But in Sarah Bernstein’s Study For Obedience (Granta), her version of the sinister events happening in the nearby countryside doesn’t explain why people start to fear her and seem to blame her.

A sow’s piglets die, a trapped ewe loses her lamb, bovine madness hits a beloved herd of cows – strange things indeed hit the community. In historic times, a search for a scapegoat might follow. The reader is clearly allowed to see that the woman might once have been seen as that scapegoat, a witch perhaps.

It’s hard not to feel sorry for her and sympathise, see her as the victim as she often seems to present herself, and hope that she gets her wish to be obedient and seen as good.

But is she her own worst enemy?

“It seemed to me that my obedience had itself taken on a kind of mysterious power.”

Sarah Bernstein. Picture: Alice Meikle.
Sarah Bernstein. Picture: Alice Meikle.

Not long after, her next move is to brave a local café. There, the customers’ over-the-top reaction of fear, borders almost on comedy. Montreal-born, Achiltibuie-based Bernstein – one of Granta’s best young British novelists of 2023 – unfolds long, clear sentences with precisely-chosen words: “I looked around... Everyone it seemed had stopped eating on my arrival, or had never started, worried, I could tell, that in opening their mouths, in swallowing the runny egg, the bit of toast, whatever contagion they associated with me would attach itself to them…”

Mesmerising, puzzling, sinister, “no horizon of possibility” – even survival – is certain closing the last page of this short, dark read.

Study For Obedience (Granta, £12.99). Interview with writer: whatson-north.co.uk

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