The Sin Eater is a bold reimagining of the reign of Queen Elizabeth I, through the perspective of the local sin eater. Queen Elizabeth, known as the Virgin Queen—never marrying or bearing an heir—ending the reign of the house of Tudor. Campisi masterfully riffs on this idea in collaboration with the classic ideas of the lengths people would go to for power. Through the eyes of our none-the-wiser narrator, May Owens, who is sentenced to being a sin eater. A sin eater, we quickly learn, is a person who consumes different food in order to spiritually take on the sins of the deceased person. In the context of punishment, it is clear that it is intending as the highest form of reprimand. May has to take on the burden of not only her own sins, but that of the town. Through the ritualistic eating that takes place, it becomes clear to May very quickly that something is not right here and she becomes determined to make it so.
The concept of The Sin Eater was right up my alley. I am very interested in the British Monarchy and who doesn’t love a conspiracy theory right? However, this book wasn’t as perfect for me as I would have liked. There were elements I really enjoyed, but there were elements that left me confused and questioning the relevance of their place in the novel. But in fairness, I think this reception could be more about me and my reading rather than a huge criticism of the novel.
As I said, The Sin Eater is set during the reign of Queen Elizabeth I, who is fictionalised as Queen Bethany, with reference to her sister Mary, (Queen Maris) and her father, the infamous, Henry VIII (King Harold II). I loved the way Campisi took creative license of this time period and essentially turned it into a bit of a murder mystery whodunnit. The Sin Eater is genius and unique, unlike anything I had ever read or had even heard of. However, with historical fiction, it can often be difficult to navigate “readability” as sometimes prior knowledge is expected to ensure a complete understanding of the story. Because I was reading this slowly, in the early hours of the morning mostly after just getting out of bed, my brain was a little fogged. It did take me a while to COMPLETELY catch on to the context of the story. Hence, why I tried to make it clear above for any future readers. So again, as I said, this could be more a blunder on my part as to how I approached reading this novel but I was at times a fair bit confused with the royal dynamics of the book.
Continuing on from this confusion, the way May narrated the book was also quite misleading. It wasn’t until the end that I realised that May’s outsider nature is why we are met with characters named Black Fingers and Fair Hair, it is because May doesn’t know these people and she is nicknaming them on their appearance. Again, this could just be me being stupid but I was like “surely these aren’t people’s actual names.” It was only when May drew attention to Fair Hair’s, FAIR HAIR, and Black Fingers, BLACK TIPPED FINGERS, that I figured it out (fucking face palm). Despite trouble figuring out who was important and who wasn’t, I think this clueless nature was a narration tool because it kept us with May, piecing together the conspiracy. It allows the author to control the pace of the novel, what the reader knows, and ultimately how twists are revealed. So despite my confusion at times, I have to commend Campisi’s ability to use my confusion against me as a way to really draw me into the story, as a way of retaining my attention in the hope of receiving some clarity.
In honesty, I did not expect the conspiracy theory murder mystery tangent to be taken in this book. I don’t REALLY remember what attracted me to it but I have to say, as an Elizabethan era murder mystery, what a fucking journey it was. I must say I was thoroughly impressed that everything I wanted came out the other side, leaving me satisfied as a reader and as a generally curious person, as most of us readers are, that overwhelming NEED TO KNOW. In the novel, I found there to be a lot of meaningless tangents in the plot. However, I tried to keep my eye on them in the hopes of them serving a purpose in the end. Thankfully, they all kind of connected with the reveal of the fairly exciting twist. I don’t want to spoil it because I do really think this book is worth reading, but I have to say that in the end, all of my confusion made complete sense.
The one thing that didn’t make sense to me though overall was May. I couldn’t get a grasp on the type of character she was. We start with her being imprisoned for stealing bread, she is then sentenced to being the sin eaters apprentice, a role she is reluctant about. Until she suddenly isn’t and she is very gracious about her responsibility. She then takes another personality turn referring to herself as “the curse.” There were so many different arcs in May’s characters, which amounted to a disjointed sense of self, that to me seemed to be a bit random? The only thing that seemed consistent in May’s character was her determination to get to the bottom of these murders. I noted down and wondered that perhaps the disjoint was intentional. Because in such an ever-changing and highly demanding position could you blame someone for not having an idea of who they are or what they represent? Perhaps not. I didn’t find it to be destructive to the novel overall, but again I struggled to come to terms with the intention behind why May was the way she was. Similarly, as May settles further into her role as the sin eater, she essentially adopts several beggars and vagabonds, some of who are actors in local pantos that play a fairly decent yet irrelevant role (pun intended), in the novel. However, drawing back to my point about the satisfactory resolution I do understand their complete purpose in the carrying out of events, however, the relationship that is cultivated and seems to be quite important, seemed a bit pointless in the grand scheme of things.
While there were things that I found to be a little undercooked in this novel, for example, mainly the reason why she became a sin eater and some of May’s familial relationships which seemed to be a driving force of her characters that I found to be under-explained, I thought the book was extremely enjoyable. I think upon reflection, perhaps it isn’t the kind of book that you can closely analyse and consider the intention of the story, it is something that’s purpose is solely for enjoyment; or perhaps I was just misreading it the whole time. The Sin Eater is set in a period of history that is regularly revisited but I found this story to be refreshing, enjoyable and unique. I think my confusion or misinterpretations can’t be a discredit to the novel, because as I said, I read it in a mostly sleepy haze but I did really enjoy it, and DAMN I just needed answers.
The Sin Eater
351 pages. 2020.