Robyn Reviews: The Sin Eater

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

Book Review: The Other Mrs Walker

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The Other Mrs Walker, by Mary Paulson-Ellis, is a story of family secrets, lives thwarted, and objects that speak from beyond the grave.

Margaret Penny, at close to fifty years old, returns to her elderly mother’s small flat in Edinburgh with no money, few possessions and fewer prospects. Her life has not turned out as she had hoped when she escaped to London without warning some thirty years previously. Her mother offers neither a welcome nor a rejection, she has never been one to share her thoughts. Her daughter learned young to follow her example: ‘tell no one’, ‘leave no trace’.

The two women attend the funeral of a local indigent where it is suggested that Margaret find work with the council tracing the family and assets of those who die alone that a funeral may be paid for. She is assigned an old woman, Mrs Walker, recently arrived in Edinburgh and found dead in her living room chair.

Margaret searches for clues as to who Mrs Walker was but all she finds are random objects in a freezing flat which reminds her of her mother’s home. She requires formal identification, paperwork, but has no hint of even a first name. She ponders her own nebulous past and uncertain future.

The story moves backwards and forwards to various years between 1929 and 2011. Snapshots of key incidents in the lives of the Walkers and Pennys are offered. It becomes clear early on that there are familial links but what they are is a mystery to be solved.

It begins with a tragedy – the death of two beautiful twins. What follows involves much that is untoward. There is betrayal, abandonment, thievery of home, possessions and children. Times were hard and love scarce. Subsistence was secured by nefarious means.

The jumping around in time and the style of writing offers the reader jigsaw puzzle pieces, knowledge gleaned ahead of and in more depth than is uncovered by Margaret. Each episode narrated provides clues as to who the protagonists were and are, and to why the many secrets have been kept.

There is a sense of isolation in the lives lived, a depth of sadness in what is left behind be it people or things. The picture painted of humanity is mordant, yet the girls in the story retain an affecting hopefulness as each works to escape the incarceration of their circumstances.

This is not a book to be rushed and offers much to consider. An intelligent but never difficult read.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Mantle.

Book Review: The Forgetting Time

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The Forgetting Time, by Sharon Guskin, is a well written book but with a plot that I struggled to get behind. As a reader it seems strange that I can accept the possibility of dragons or other magical occurrences in a story yet balk at the idea of reincarnation. It is a problem that many of the characters in this book shared.

Noah is a troubled child who seems to know things that he has never been taught. He is four years old, terrified of water, suffers recurring nightmares and is desperate to go home to his mama, despite already being in what he should consider his home with his mom.

When things come to a head at his pre-school his mom knows that something is wrong, that this is more than just an overactive imagination. She seeks psychiatric help but all that is offered is medication with potentially harmful side effects. In desperation she turns to Dr Anderson, whose life’s work has been an attempt to scientifically prove that certain young children retain memories of a former life, of being someone they could never have known.

Dr Anderson has problems of his own. He has been diagnosed with aphasia, a type of dementia affecting the brain’s language centre that will eventually render him unable to make sense of words and therefore communicate. He is writing a book about the cases he has studied and begins a race to complete his manuscript while he still can. He includes his analysis of many children around the world but his agent tells him that he needs to add a strong and recent American case that his readers will feel a connection to. When Noah’s mom, Janie, approaches him he agrees to take Noah on, a final case study that will enable him to complete his work.

Janie is horrified by what she considers the bunkum that Dr Anderson is offering her as a solution. She is also repelled by the idea that her beloved son’s suffering should be treated as just another study in a book. She wants a cure not a write up. However, with her money running out and Noah’s distress increasing she sees little alternative but to follow Anderson’s suggestions. Noah is to be taken to find the Mama he has been crying out for.

I read the first half of this book unable to shake off my scepticism. By the time I had reached the second half the pace had picked up and my interest in the outcomes for each of the characters kept me turning the pages. The inspiration for this story comes from fact. It would seem that my inability to accept possibilities is as limited as many of the American characters in the book, that this is in contrast to those from other parts of the world who do not require proofs and belief to simply allow that the workings of the world can be beyond current human comprehension.

I very much enjoyed the way Tommy’s backstory was presented. Here we had a family and community to get to know, plus there was a mystery to solve. The way Tommy’s family reacted to Noah was easy to empathise with. What exactly was going on seemed less important when the tension rose.

I suspect that my inability to get behind the basis of the plot shows a lack on my part. The author has produced a nicely written, considered and unusual tale yet I railed at the premise. I hope that others will be able to move beyond such prejudices and enjoy the rip and weave of the storytelling.

My copy of this was provided gratis by the publisher, Mantle.

Book Review: Hausfrau

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Hausfrau, by Jill Alexander Essbaum, tells the story of three months in the life of American expatriate Anna who is now living in the suburbs of Zurich with her Swiss husband, Bruno, and their three children. Despite having no close family left alive, and having lived in Switzerland for the past nine years, Anna feels no connection with her adopted homeland. She is in a spiral of self destruction, accelerating towards crisis with an inevitability which is disturbing to read.

On the face of it Anna has it all: a husband who provides for her; healthy, happy children; a mother-in-law available to help out with childcare giving her time to indulge her interests. However, throughout her life Anna has distanced herself from others and now finds that she has few friends.

“Anna rarely felt at ease inside her skin. I am tight faced and thirty-seven years, Anna thought. I am the sum of all my twitches.”

At her husband’s behest she meets with a therapist but is reluctant to open up to her. She is advised to cultivate interests so joins a language class to improve her German that she may communicate better with those around. Here she meets Archie with whom she immediately starts an affair. She uses sex as an opiate, quashing any feelings of guilt with skewed arguments based on feelings of self-entitlement.

Anna does not conflate lust with love although even those she loves are viewed through a self tainted glass. She recognises that if her affairs are discovered then her comfortable world will fall apart. Many of her actions are more akin to self-harm, a cry for the help that she persistently eschews.

I loved the way this book was written, its use of language. For example, descriptions of place allow the reader to appreciate how Anna found the grandeur and beauty of her surroundings oppressive.

“Alstadt is clotted with historically significant churches”

Absorbed as she is in her malcontents she finds the efforts of Bruno’s family and those who try to reach out to her in friendship to be as repressive as the well ordered canton in which she reluctantly lives.

The tragedy of the story is all the more painful because it could have been avoided. I would have liked to know more about Anna’s background to better understand why she acted as she did but perhaps I am looking for easy answers which do not exist in life. Anna brought about her own downfall, but to blame her entirely would be to misunderstand the human condition. Her story is poignant and well worth a read.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Mantle.