Author Sarah Bernstein pictured in an undated photo. Photo: Alice Meikle
Sarah Bernstein’s ‘Study for Obedience’ Wins 2023 Scotiabank Giller Prize
The author, who gave birth to a daughter 10 days ago, accepted the award remotely from her home in the Scottish Highlands / BY Robert Wiersema / November 13th, 2023
Montreal-born writer Sarah Bernstein has been awarded the 2023 Scotiabank Giller Prize for her novel Study for Obedience (published by Knopf Canada). The lyrical, haunting novel is the story of a young woman who returns to the land of her ancestors to care for her brother, whose marriage has recently ended.
The Scotiabank Giller Prize, which is worth $100,000 to the winner, is the largest prize in Canadian literature.
“I’m so sorry I can’t be there with you tonight,” Bernstein said via video from her home in the Scottish Highlands, citing her 10-day-old daughter. “This book is dedicated to my father, who is sadly no longer with us, who taught me the love of words.”
The Giller jury were enthusiastic in their shortlist comments for the winning novel: “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 award was presented — virtually — by Suzette Mayr, whose novel The Sleeping Car Porter was awarded the prize last year.
This year marks the 30th awarding of the Scotiabank Giller Prize, which was founded in 1994 by Jack Rabinovitch in honour of his late wife, literary journalist Doris Giller, who passed away from cancer the year prior. (Rabinovitch himself passed away in 2017.) The gala included a series of video histories of the prize. Interestingly, Bernstein is the 31st winner of the prize — at the 2000 ceremony, Michael Ondaatje and David Adams Richards were both named as winners, and each took home the full cash prize.
Traditionally one of the most glamorous events in the Canadian publishing calendar, this year’s gala evening at Toronto’s Four Seasons Hotel included such notable guests as Margaret Atwood, John Irving, Seamus O’Regan, Sarah Polley, Indigo CEO Heather Reisman and a handful of independent booksellers, including Shelley Macbeth of Uxbridge, Ont.’s Blue Heron and Susan Chamberlain of The Book Keeper in Sarnia, Ont., as well as previous Giller winners Souvankham Thammavongsa, Vincent Lam and Linden MacIntyre.
The ceremony was crashed by pro-Palestinian protesters calling for a ceasefire in Gaza, with two of them rushing the stage while host Rick Mercer was talking, holding signs saying, “Scotiabank funds genocide.” The bank, which sponsors the Giller Prize, has an investment arm that owns a US$440-million stake in the Israeli company Elbit Systems Ltd., which makes defence equipment used by the Israeli military. Toronto Police arrested the three protesters the next day.
The event was hosted by comedian, CBC personality and writer Rick Mercer.
Each of the nominees introduced their own books on-stage, as well as presenting mini-documentaries detailing their writing spaces, their hobbies and their communities.
In her video, set in her bucolic home in the Scottish village of Achiltibuie, Bernstein talked about the inspiration for Study in Obedience coming in part from a quote by artist Paula Rego: “I can make my women obedient and murderous at the same time.”
The 2023 jury was composed of Canadian writers Ian Williams (Jury Chair, and winner of the 2019 prize for his novel Reproduction), Sharon Bala, Brian Thomas Isaac, American author Rebecca Makkai and Indian British writer Neel Mukherjee. The five jurists read 145 books (submitted by their publishers), distilling down to a twelve-title longlist and, finally, the five shortlisted books.
The other nominees on the shortlist were Eleanor Catton for her novel Birnam Wood (McClelland & Stewart), Kevin Chong for his novel The Double Life of Benson Yu (Simon & Schuster), Dionne Irving for her short story collection The Islands (Catapult) and CS Richardson for his novel All the Colour in the World (Knopf Canada).
Each of the shortlisted authors will receive $10,000.