Sarah Bernstein wins $100K Scotiabank Giller Prize for novel Study for Obedience

Sarah Bernstein has won the 2023 Scotiabank Giller Prize for her novel Study for Obedience.

The $100,000 prize is the richest in Canadian literature.

Bernstein is a Montreal-born author and creative writing teacher currently living in Scotland. She joined the evening virtually, as she had given birth to a new baby merely 10 days prior.

“I really, really couldn’t believe it,” she told CBC Books in an interview shortly after her win. “I’m having difficulty still assimilating information, but you sort of feel like it’s a joke someone’s playing on you or something.”

“I haven’t slept very much in about 10 days. So I think the sense of surreality is just continuing. The edges of everything are just a bit blurry.”

“I’m really privileged to have been afforded the opportunity to tell this story and I think often now how important it is more than ever to support writers in material ways to tell the stories of their own people in their own ways, especially when their stories challenge dominant historical narratives,” she said in her acceptance speech.

Her other books include her 2021 novel The Coming Bad Days and her collection of prose poems Now Comes the Lightning. Bernstein was named one of Granta’s best young British novelists in 2023. 

The 2023 Scotiabank Giller Prize shortlist from left to right: CS Richardson, Dionne Irving, Eleanor Catton and Kevin Chong. (Ryan Emberley)

Study for Obedience is also shortlisted for the 2023 Booker Prize.

Creating shape in fiction

Study for Obedience explores themes of guilt, abuse and prejudice through the eyes of its unreliable narrator. In it, a woman leaves her hometown to move to a “remote northern country” to be a housekeeper for her brother, whose wife recently decided to leave him. Soon after her arrival the community is struck by unusual events from collective bovine hysteria to a potato blight. When the locals direct their growing suspicions of newcomers at her, their hostility grows more palpable.

“She can’t imagine what a life should be or what a life should look like. In the first instance, she looks to her family to tell her how to be, and then as she gets older, she has invested a lot, although she doesn’t talk about it very much, in her attempt to have a career as a journalist,” Bernstein said in an interview with The Next Chapter.

“I was thinking a bit about what it means when you invest so much in your personality, in a career that feels like a vocation, but you can’t make it in that career or you can’t get a kind of security in that. She ends up leaving it — and that too doesn’t give shape to her life. That’s partly why she goes back to live with her brother, because she’s still looking for that external validation, for the world to press against her and create a shape for her rather than vice versa.”

“The stories that people tell about themselves and their own histories are really powerful,” she told CBC Books. “They can do a lot of damage; they can put a lot of distance between people. But I think one of the things that I was interested in, too, is the way that the book gestures towards a potentially reparative function of storytelling in the sense of the story’s capacity to hold different realities or different truths alongside one another, even if that relation is very uneasy.”

LISTEN | Sarah Bernstein’s Study for Obedience explores power and complicity: 

The Next Chapter12:46Sarah Bernstein’s Study for Obedience explores power and complicity

Featured VideoThe novel, which is on both the 2023 Scotiabank Giller Prize and Booker Prize shortlists, follows a woman who moves to a remote town to be a housekeeper for her brother. When strange and sinister things begin to happen, the townspeople grow suspicious of her.

Study for Obedience by Sarah Bernstein. Illustrated book cover of a small dead bird on a table.
(Knopf Canada)

Bernstein’s fellow finalists include Kevin Chong, Eleanor Catton, Dionne Irving and CS Richardson.

Canadian poet and fiction writer Ian Williams was the chair the five-person jury this year. He was joined by Canadian authors Sharon Bala, Brian Thomas Isaac and international authors Rebecca Makkai and Neel Mukherjee. Publishers submitted 145 titles for consideration, which was narrowed down to a 12-title longlist before the reveal of the five-book shortlist.

“The modernist experiment continues to burn incandescently in Sarah Bernstein’s slim novel, Study for Obedience. Bernstein asks the indelible question: what does a culture of subjugation, erasure and dismissal of women produce? In this book, equal parts poisoned and sympathetic, Bernstein’s unnamed protagonist goes about exacting, in shockingly twisted ways, the price of all that the world has withheld from her. The prose refracts Javier Marías sometimes, at other times Samuel Beckett. It’s an unexpected and fanged book, and its own studied withholdings create a powerful mesmeric effect,” said the jury in a press statement.  

Protesters interrupt broadcast

This year’s televised in-person gala in Toronto was hosted by comedian, TV personality and author Rick Mercer. The broadcast was interrupted twice by anti-Israel protesters. The first time was early on in the broadcast, when protesters shouted and jumped onstage with signs that read “Scotiabank Funds Genocide.” The second time was shouting just as Bernstein’s name was called, forcing organizers to repeat the announcement. The protesters were escorted out by police but the CBC broadcast kept cameras off the incident for viewers at home.

Toronto businessman Jack Rabinovitch founded the prize in honour of his late wife, literary journalist Doris Giller, in 1994. Rabinovitch died in 2017 at the age of 87.

Last year’s winner was Suzette Mayr for her novel The Sleeping Car Porter

Other past Giller Prize winners include Omar El Akkad for What Strange ParadiseSouvankham Thammavongsa for How to Pronounce KnifeEsi Edugyan for Washington BlackMichael Redhill for Bellevue SquareMargaret Atwood for Alias GraceMordecai Richler for Barney’s VersionAlice Munro for RunawayAndré Alexis for Fifteen Dogs and Madeleine Thien for Do Not Say We Have Nothing.

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