Study for Obedience, Sarah Bernstein’s second novel, takes home the 2023 Giller at a ceremony disrupted by anti-Israel protests

Montreal-born Sarah Bernstein has won the 2023 Scotiabank Giller Prize for her sophomore novel, Study for Obedience, published by Knopf Canada.

A jury composed of chair Ian Williams along with Canadian writers Sharon Bala and Brian Thomas Isaac, American writer Rebecca Makkai, and British-Indian writer Neel Mukherjee compared Bernsein’s novel to Beckett and Javier Marias. The jury wrote:

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.

Bernstein, who has just given birth to her first child, was not in attendance at the festival itself, but accepted the award via remote feed from her home in Scotland. Her novel is also in the running for the Booker Prize later this month.

The Giller ceremony, held at the tony Four Seasons Hotel in Toronto, was twice disrupted by anti-Israel protesters. In the first instance, a group brandishing signs that read “Scotiabank funds genocide” stormed the stage. In a video posted by the Palestinian Youth Movement to X, formerly Twitter, host Rick Mercer can be seen trying to get the protesters onstage to drop their signs while saying, “Okay, time to go.”

In the second incident, a protester interrupted the announcement of Bernstein as the winner, requiring the announcement to be repeated. The Toronto Star notes that for the first time, armed police were present at the entrances as the 300 invited guests filed into the event.

The founder of the Giller Prize, Jack Rabinovitch, and its executive director, his daughter, Elana Rabinovitch, are Jewish. This is the second time in four days a Jewish-run cultural institution in Toronto has been targeted by protesters; last Friday, an Indigo location at Bay and Bloor Streets was defaced and posters of the chain’s CEO, Heather Reisman, were plastered on the windows with similar accusations of “funding genocide.”

This year marked the thirtieth anniversary of the Giller Prize, which was inaugurated in memory of Jack Rabinovitch’s late wife, Doris Giller. The prize is worth $100,000 to the winner, with an additional $10,000 going to the runners-up.

The other shortlisted nominees this year 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 collection of short stories The Island (Catapult Press)
  • CS Richardson for his novel All the Colour in the World (Knopf Canada)

Previous winners of the Giller Prize include Margaret Atwood, Mordecai Richler, Alice Munro, M.G. Vassanji, Omar El Akkad, and last year’s winner, Suzette Mayr.

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