Annabel, an undergraduate English student at Oxford, is not yet sure exactly what she is. Is she a gross creature, defined by the horrible claims of her imperfect body and particularly her digestive system? A siren, whose quietly assertive sexuality — combined, oddly and alluringly, with a sense of naiveté — makes her irresistible? A brilliant young scholar? Or, as an older student scoffs about one professor, “a phenomenologist at best?”

Does she even have thoughts? A self?

These questions haunt the aptly (if somewhat boringly) titled “Practice,” the debut novel by British writer Rosalind Brown that follows Annabel through a single Sunday, during which she attempts to write an essay about Shakespeare’s sonnets.

Annabel is a creature of regiment — perhaps an effort to control the occasionally disturbing depths of her intense imagination. She wakes at 6 a.m., pleased by the knowledge that she is effectively alone among her peers in that abstemious routine. She eats and drinks things in a strict order, and feels palpable alarm at the idea of breaking it. When we learn that a luxurious breakfast of croissants left her in hours of pain, it’s easy to wonder how much of it was psychologically inflicted.

Yet she seems as drawn to disrupting her routine as to keeping it, in much the same way that the sonnets, while adhering to a rigid structure, make hay of the social norms that theoretically might have inhibited their author. Annabel wonders how it is possible to synthesize strict form with unbridled emotion. As she dives in and out of the poems, she does exactly that. The friction between her drive toward orderliness and her irrepressible emotions makes those emotions more intense; restraint concentrates what it seeks to contain.

There’s a genius in the idea of using Shakespeare’s sonnets, which form an exploration of desire deeply and messily concerned with questions of gender and selfhood, to illustrate the complicated process of a young woman figuring out who and what she is. Shakespeare was a master of depicting the kinds of universal experiences — lust, betrayal, self-disgust, fear — that might preoccupy a young literary-minded student.

One question on Annabel’s mind: Is it possible for her to be as comfortable as the author of the sonnets seemed to be with blending masculine and feminine feelings? It’s no accident that the other writer she is most enamored of is Virginia Woolf, who famously challenged readers, in “A Room of One’s Own,” to imagine the constraints that might have faced a female Shakespeare. Annabel is torn between the masculine and feminine within herself — and between those same poles in the literature she studies. She is hiding her first real relationship, with a man, from her mother and three sisters. He is much older and a friend of her mother’s; she worries, it’s made implicitly clear, that a strong tie to a man might be seen by her entirely female family — no father is mentioned — as a kind of betrayal.

One of the joys of Brown’s writing, which is often lovely even if it sometimes labors to surprise, is how lightly she lets readers make thematic connections. Annabel does not particularly like to think about herself. She is solitary and excellent at filling her solitude with characters of her own creation, whose own transgressive impulses constantly draw attention away from their originator. But by observing her one day of study and broken routine, all her elaborate methods of evading engagement with herself, we come to understand something of the ideas that — without her even noticing — are beginning to form the clarity of character she seeks.

“Practice” is a novel written for readers, which may seem a silly distinction to draw; all novels are written to be read. But Brown appeals specifically to those who have found themselves shaping their own identities around the words of others, and then coming to wonder whether that process has honed their individuality or lessened it.

Hence, “Practice”: By reading, we practice being alive. Annabel is so deep in the practice that she doesn’t understand that she already fully exists. As we follow her toward that realization, we become more vital ourselves. “For a moment she surveys her long series of hot meals and movements and solid nights in bed that are directed toward this: the close understanding of poems on a page,” Brown writes, at the start of Annabel’s day. “It seems both appalling and entirely appropriate.”

Talya Zax is an editor at the Forward.

Farrar, Straus & Giroux. 202 pp. $26

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