"The Sin Eater walks among us, unseen, unheard
Sins of our flesh become sins of Hers
Following Her to the grave, unseen, unheard
The Sin Eater Walks Among Us."
'Sin Eater' by by Megan Campisi is billed as 'The Handmaid's Tale' meets 'Alice in Wonderland,' a description which frankly couldn't be farther from the truth. The story is indeed interesting, awful in many ways.. but if that's what you're looking for, it's not what you're going to get.
The novel is about a young orphaned girl who gets into a bit of trouble just trying to survive on her own in 16th-century England and in a moment of rebelliousness or perhaps.. vanity, she draws the eye of someone in a position to change her life entirely. Not for the better, but for the worse.
"His shadow stayed in the house for weeks. It wasn't dark like a shadow, just an empty place in the shape of my da. I would see it out of the side of my eye and turn knowing he should be there. But when I looked there wasn't anything."
Sentenced to a lifetime as a Sin Eater, a woman collared and marked, May must hear final confessions of those who are dying and then eat ritual foods based on the sins they confess. By doing so, it's believed that she takes their sins unto her own soul, allowing them to pass freely into heaven.
A child truly alone in the world, she's quick to form bonds to anyone who shows her kindness. When the older Sin Eater she learns from refuses to eat food representing a sin that isn't confessed, she's arrested and tortured to death.. but already feeling an affinity for the woman, the young girl becomes determined to find the truth of the deception and avenge her.
That's really what the bulk of the book is about.. May's adjustment to her horrible new situation and her journey to solve the mystery that resulted in her only companion's death.
"There's a white mist rising from my lips. Mayhap it's my soul fleeing my body. My soul melting away into the air. Why doesn't it take me with it? I try to go after my soul, but my legs don't answer when I call on them to move."
If you're like me, maybe you'd be shocked to know that the last sin-eater actually only passed a little over a hundred years ago. I was horrified to find such a barbaric custom existed that late into modern history. According to Wikipedia, "a local legend in Shropshire, England, concerns the grave of Richard Munslow, who died in 1906, said to be the last sin-eater of the area." A 1911 Encyclopædia Britannica article states that "a (sin eating) was witnessed as recently as 1893 at Market Drayton, Shropshire.
Apparently, it was common practice at one time to hire the poor to do the eating, which is about as financially exploitative a practice as there can be.
For the purpose of this novel, all the sin-eaters are women and that is likely where 'The Handmaid's Tale' reference comes from, but as dystopian an idea that is.. that's really where the similarities end. Mostly it's a story about how easily one can find themselves knocked down.. metaphorically speaking.. and how quick others might be to participate in one's suffering.
There's certainly a recurring theme in human nature, not just in stories, to relish having someone to kick when they're already down. Once someone is sort of.. 'fallen from grace'.. they're deemed safe to abuse, and while not everyone responds to that vulnerability.. some do. Sometimes even people you wouldn't expect it from, friends, family, and more. And sometimes, unexpectedly, there's also someone who just won't bring themselves to treat others badly.. simply because they can.
"This is why we have cursing. I never understood what made folk do it. But now I know. All our dire feelings stain the heart, and the stains bloom into curses."
I saw absolutely no 'Alice in Wonderland' roots anywhere and believe me, I love that fairy tale and often see them just in the dreamy quality of a story or an insinuation of a character's nature. It's just not there in this book. But make no mistake, the book is quite good.
Most of the mystery is easy enough to decipher, in fact.. the clues are written out so plainly, I think perhaps the author didn't really intend for us to linger on that too much. Many of the reveals were more like assurances, just letting the reader know they paid attention and did well. They saw the trail and recognized the crumbs.
"You're nothing if you're dead. I told myself I needed to be alive to help the Sin Eater, but, really, it was my life, dressed up as hers, that I was saving."
What this book really did, in addition to shocking me a bit and making me feel horrible for May, was make me think. It made me go back and research the subject matter, wondering with dread if there were people forced into the role by more than circumstance. The situation the girl finds herself in is certainly a very real possibility, even if I didn't happen across a similar origin somewhere.
Probably the most impactful reveal, actually had nothing to do with the mystery itself.. and everything to do with how May found her life changed. That absolutely stunned me. But there were some sweet moments too, however fleeting. Moments of kindness, of a more gentle humanity shining through here and there. Like a fragile kind of hope.
If you don't mind seriously dark stories, I do highly recommend reading 'Sin Eater.' I'm glad I did.