The Sin Eater by Megan Campisi

‘Salt for pride.  Mustard seed for lies.  Barley for curses.’

May Owens, aged fourteen, becomes a sin eater after being found guilty of stealing a loaf of bread.  May might not appreciate how such a role will ostracise her, but she’s grateful that she no longer needs to worry about where her next meal might come from. The novel is set in a slightly alternate version of sixteenth century England.

‘The Unseen is now seen,’ says the Sin Eater. ‘The Unheard is now heard.’  The sins of your flesh become the sins of mine to be borne to my grave in silence.  Speak.’

A sin eater, I read, is always a woman.  After all, it was Eve who first ate the Forbidden Fruit.  At this time, in this world (and in parts of the ‘real’ Christian world) every town had at least one sin eater.  It was her duty to hear the final confessions of the dying and to eat their sins thus guaranteeing their souls access to heaven.  While the sin eater was necessary, she was shunned and silenced. The sin eater was largely invisible.

At first May works with another sin eater. May learns that foods are matched to crimes and is puzzled when a deer’s heart becomes part of an eating for one of the Queen’s courtiers.  The relevant associated crime was not part of the confession.  May is curious.  A second courtier becomes ill and dies.  A second deer’s heart appears.  May investigates.

What follows is an intriguing quest for truth.  May’s world has already been turned upside down once, and her investigation will not be easy.

I found this novel intriguing. While I worked out part of the mystery before the end, there were aspects I hadn’t figured out and the journey was interesting. 

Note: My thanks to NetGalley and Pan Macmillan Australia for providing me with a free electronic copy of this book for review purposes.

Jennifer Cameron-Smith