Megan Campisi’s unusual first novel is based around the historical concept of sin eating: the idea that a person close to death could call on a ‘Sin Eater’ to spiritually take on their sins. The dying person would do this by confessing to the Sin Eater, who would then consume a ritual meal consisting of a different type of food to represent each transgression. As you can imagine, this is not a pleasant job and certainly not something most people would want to do…but May Owens, the fourteen-year-old narrator of the novel, has no choice in the matter. After being arrested for stealing a loaf of bread, she is sentenced to live as a Sin Eater for the rest of her life.
With that sentence, everything changes for May. Overnight, she has become a social outcast. She is exiled to live alone on the edge of town and is forbidden to speak or be spoken to, except when listening to a confession. The heavy brass collar she is forced to wear around her neck, marked with an ‘S’, identifies her as someone to be avoided at all costs. It’s a lonely and miserable life, but May is a strong and resilient person and tries to carry out her work to the best of her ability.
Early in the novel, May accompanies another Sin Eater to the royal court to hear the deathbed confession of one of the Queen’s ladies. However, when the ritual meal is prepared, an extra item of food – the heart of a deer – is included, although it does not represent any of the sins confessed by the lady. What does the heart mean and who put it there? When another courtier falls ill and the same thing happens again, May decides to investigate.
By now you’re probably wondering about the time period in which this story is set. Well, it’s Elizabethan England – but not quite. Instead of Queen Elizabeth, Queen Bethany is on the throne, and her half-sister – the previous queen – was not Mary, but Maris. Bethany’s father did have six wives, but he was Harold II rather than Henry VIII. God is The Maker and England is Angland.
Megan Campisi states in her author’s note that the story is ‘spun out of fantasy’ and I can understand that using a fictitious setting rather than a real one would have given her more freedom to tell the story without needing to stick too closely to historical fact. It also gives the novel a bit of a fairy tale feel, as does the way most of the other characters are referred to not by names but by nicknames such as ‘Country Mouse’, ‘Willow Tree’ or ‘Fair Hair’. Sadly, though, I didn’t think any of these intriguing-sounding secondary characters really came to life; May herself was the only one who felt believable. And I’m afraid I found the thinly-disguised parallels with the Elizabethan court irritating; I think the story would have worked just as well set either at the real Elizabethan court or in an entirely fictional world.
Despite not enjoying this book as much as I’d hoped to, I do think the concept was fascinating and I can honestly say that I’ve never read anything quite like it!
Thanks to Pan Macmillan/Mantle for providing a copy of this book for review via NetGalley.
This is book 5/20 of my 20 Books of Summer.