Today I am reviewing the historical fiction novel, The Sin Eater, by Megan Campisi. Many thanks to Mantle Books for my copy of the book which I received via NetGalley.
Can you uncover the truth when you’re forbidden from speaking it?
A Sin Eater’s duty is a necessary evil: she hears the final private confessions of the dying, eats their sins as a funeral rite, and so guarantees their souls access to heaven. It is always women who eat sins – since it was Eve who first ate the Forbidden Fruit – and every town has at least one, not that they are publicly acknowledged. Stained by the sins they are obliged to consume, the Sin Eater is shunned and silenced, doomed to live in exile at the edge of town.
Recently orphaned May Owens is just fourteen, and has never considered what it might be like to be so ostracized; she’s more concerned with where her next meal is coming from. When she’s arrested for stealing a loaf of bread, however, and subsequently sentenced to become a Sin Eater, finding food is suddenly the last of her worries.
It’s a devastating sentence, but May’s new invisibility opens new doors. And when first one then two of the Queen’s courtiers suddenly grow ill, May hears their deathbed confessions – and begins to investigate a terrible rumour that is only whispered of amid palace corridors.
Set in a thinly disguised sixteenth-century England, The Sin Eater by Megan Campisi is a wonderfully imaginative and gripping story of treason and treachery; of secrets and silence; of women, of power – and, ultimately, of the strange freedom that comes from being an outcast with no hope of redemption for, as May learns, being a nobody sometimes counts for everything . . .
Sometimes when you start a book, you know from the first page that you are going to love it. I had this feeling with The Sin Eater.
Although Megan Campisi’s book is a fictional tale, Sin Eaters existed in the UK until roughly a century ago. I had never heard of this before and it made my inner historian curious in much the same way as Stacey Halls’s The Familiars made me about the Pendle witches. The life of a Sin Eater must have been an unbearably sad existence, witnessing the absolute worst in people without any of the kindness. It is easy to see how, for May who thrives on her interactions with her community, this would seem the cruellest punishment imaginable.
The Royal family tree at the start of the book made it clear in my mind that the events were taking place in a fantasised version of Tudor England and my current obsession with the Tudors added to my enjoyment of this book. Added to this link to our own history, the clever way that well known nursery rhymes and fairy tales are tweaked to the reality of the book makes this fictional world feel incredibly real and possible.
The compendium of sins and corresponding foods included in the book makes for fascinating reading. It’s funny because even seeing the food list, I expected it to be a symbolic part of a ritual. It never occurred to me that the Sin Eater would actually have to eat everything and grow hugely fat. At a time when a large number of people would be fighting just to put scraps of food on their table it must have felt a very strange experience, and even more isolating than the enforced silence.
On top of the fact that the very existence lived by a Sin Eater is fascinating you have the added intrigue of the mysteries of the castle – who is poisoning people and adding the deer’s heart to their eating? What are they covering up? This mystery is drawn out enticingly right to the very end of the book, and whilst I would have enjoyed a book purely about the life of a Sin Eater, this added an extra dimension to hold my interest even more firmly. I loved how it is the very fact that May is uneducated and has to rely on what she sees that leads to her solving the mystery. The very thing that used to annoy people most about her personality becomes the most important part of her, and I found this to be very touching.
If you are a fan of Bridget Collins or Stacey Halls, I would say that this is definitely a book for you.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR:
Megan Campisi is a playwright, novelist and teacher. Her plays have been performed in China, France and the United States. She has been a forest range, sous chef in Paris and a physical theatre specialist around the world. Originally from California, she attended Yale University and the L’Ecole International de Theatre Jacques Lecoq. She lives in Brooklyn, New York with her family.