Review Blog

May 12 2020

The sin eater by Megan Campisi

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Macmillan, 2020. ISBN: 9781529019100.
(Age: Adolescent - Adult) This vibrant story plunges us into the world of the Middle Ages in Britain, Campisi vividly reflecting historical Elizabethan world in a tale that focuses on the particular role of the 'sin eater' in that era. The narrative is centred on a young adolescent woman, who, struggling to survive alone with no family, job or money, is arrested for stealing. Inexplicably, she is not hanged with the other young female perpetrators of minor misdeeds, but is told, bluntly, and clearly with no choice, that she will now be a 'sin-eater'. She is forced to undergo the torture of having the 'S' for sin-eater burnt on to her tongue and a brass collar clamped around her neck, then told that she is to fulfill this new role in silence, and thus to have nothing to do with anyone else, as she is now and will be, for the rest of her life feared as an untouchable.
Within a short time she is called to do her first sin-eating, escorted to a home, and given particular foods that are chosen as appropriate for the story of a newly-dead person's life. After each 'eating' she returns to the small room where she manages to live alone with almost no possessions. As Campisi draws us deeply into a world where poverty dominates, we become aware of her gradual acceptance of her 'work', and of the strangeness of this life. In the realisation that the task will enable her to eat, she accepts that she has a position where it is a law that no-one may speak to her, but neither should they ever hurt her, because she is tainted by her role, and this would endanger others.
Through her construction of a re-imagined and startlingly vivid world set in Elizabethan England, Campisi depicts the squalor and poverty of that time, especially that endured by the poor, seen in such stark contrast to that of the rich, especially of the royals. We note some specific aspects of that era through her clever adaptation of words, Campisi having constructed alternative names and places for what we know historically. In her vibrant, descriptive story-telling, she reveals much about the lives of those who are poor and struggling to survive, while also describing many 'probable' aspects of how those, whom we recognise as 'the royals', lived. Plunging us into this world of rigid and distinct social classes, Campisi inferentially enables us to make sense of time and place, to work out who is the ruling monarch, and thus to read this story as representation of real history. The sin eater is indeed an exciting read and a vibrant, wonderful creation. It would be suitable for adolescent and adult readers.
Elizabeth Bondar

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