The Sin Eater is dark, gripping historical fiction. Set in an alternative Elizabethan world, it follows the story of May, who – for the crime of stealing a loaf of bread – is sentenced to be a Sin Eater, a woman who takes on the sin of others when they die so that they can ascend to Heaven. Sin Eaters are curses made flesh – they may not speak, except when listening to the sins of the dying, and no-one may look at them or touch them. Completely cast out, May has to navigate her new reality – along with the burden of being the only person who could unravel everyone’s secrets.
I loved the idea of sin eaters – a real concept taken from history but beautifully twisted and elevated here. Campisi wove sin eating into every thread of the novel, making regular interjections about the foods eaten for specific sins which worked brilliantly and gave the narrative a real sense of voice. She also painted a very interesting picture about belief in Elizabethan times – a contentious issue given the switch from one Church to another and back again.
The picture painted of this alternative Elizabethan era was visceral. May was an outcast living amongst outcasts, and Campisi didn’t shy away from the horrors of that life. I also loved how she played with the idea of being an outcast and the freedoms, as well as restrictions, that could give you. The scenes where May used her status to give herself liberty were some of my favourites.
May was a fascinating narrator. She read exactly like her fourteen years, with growing maturity throughout the novel as she learnt more of the world and its secrets. She also fitted seamlessly into her time. Some historical fiction struggles to make its narrators feel authentic – their views or words are too modern – but there was no such difficulty here. May also kept the darkness of the book from being overwhelming by occasionally acting her age – being overjoyed by small things, like dipping her toes into a fountain. Moments of teenage melodrama brought a smile to my face.
There were many supporting characters, but as May could not speak to them, none felt as real as May. Instead, they were viewed through her lens – given names like Fair Hair, or Willow Tree, or Mush Face, labels she could use to identify them as she couldn’t ask their names. Again, this retained a sense of childishness but also painted a clearer picture of them than any name could. Willow Tree couldn’t be anything but a wizened elderly physician. Fair Hair couldn’t be anything other than the beautiful maid.
There were elements I disliked – a couple of phrases threw me out of the story, feeling out of place, and one scene between May and another character felt entirely unnecessary and discomfiting – but those are minor quibbles in an otherwise excellent book.
Anyone who likes historical fiction or historical fantasy will likely enjoy this – especially those who enjoy books that really embody their narrators voice. Highly recommended.
Published by Mantle (Pan MacMillan)
Hardback: 23 July 2020