I was lying in bed a few nights ago when I realized that what I’d already written about Megan Campisi’s spectacular new novel, Sin Eater, wasn’t enough. I was stricken with fear, having spent the last hour talking with my husband about what’s happening, when I thought about the book’s protagonist, May.
May has it really bad. Just catastrophically bad. She has a turbulent, abusive childhood with multiple caretakers. Her parents die when she’s fourteen and she has to grow up immediately, supporting herself by being a washerwoman, a job that barely covers her basic needs. When she steals a loaf of bread, she’s imprisoned and given a life sentence as a Sin Eater, a class of public servant who listens to dying people recite their sins, assigns the sins their own food — raisins for adultery, pickled cucumber for idleness, rose hips for lust — and eats these foods before an audience of the dead’s family and friends. In consuming the edible representations of the dead’s sins, the sin eater takes on the burden of those sins, allowing the dead to ascend to heaven. The sin is then the Sin Eater’s own, condemning her to an eternity as “Eve’s handmaiden.” She is so saddled with sin, she will never go to heaven.
Though Sin Eaters provide an essential service to society, they are shunned. Their tongues are branded with an S, and they wear a heavy locked S around their necks. They cannot speak, and with the exception of the recitation of the sins, no one is allowed to speak to them. They are pariahs shouldering the worst of the inner lives and crimes of the neighbors who hate them.
Like I said, May has it really bad.
As I lay in bed, staring at the dark ceiling and dreading the following day, I thought about the inner journey May takes through the course of this novel. She starts out naive, terrified, confused. She’s thrust into a new world, one she didn’t ask for and doesn’t deserve; she can’t be touched or looked at, she can’t talk to people, she can’t reliably build friendships or make allies. Her only friend, in the beginning, is the elder Sin Eater who takes her in, letting her sleep on a rug before her fire and dragging her around to every day’s eatings. They develop a kind of love between them, even though they can’t even talk to each other.
Days join together into weeks. Early spring becomes late spring. The Sin Eater’s nothing like my mother. The Sin Eater is silent and steady and ready with a slap if I, say, sleep past dawn or don’t do the words right at the end of a Recitation. But when she holds me sometimes at night, it feels like I belong. Her house becomes our house. Our house becomes home. Me on my rug by the hearth. Her in the loft I’ve still never ventured into. She’s not my kin, and I’m not hers, but we’re something to each other. We are us.
When a deer heart, representing a horrific sin to which the dead did not confess, appears on the coffin of a royal governess, the elder Sin Eater refuses to eat it. For this crime, she’s tortured and killed, leaving young May all alone in a new role for which she’s scarcely prepared, in a cruel world that despises and rejects her. From there, May’s innocence and fear turns to rage. She curses the world that curses her. She imagines herself a ghost, a wraith, her anger spilling over as she takes ownership of a public well (no one dares come near when she’s bathing in it), brazenly steals produce (no one can look at or speak to her, making her movements, in a sense, freer), and stalks the castle halls, confident in her new invisibility yet still terrified of the evil lurking in dark corners.
May’s first person narration is remarkable in its emotional clarity. She’s unmistakeably fourteen as she imagines herself in charmingly innocent romantic situations with a kind-hearted noble who talks to her. She’s desperate for family, alternately latching onto and despising the other cast-offs who become “her folk.”
Most poignant is May’s eventual determination to steel her spine, soften her brittle heart, and find love and hope in her situation and found family. It’s this sweet willingness to forgive — but never forget — the wicked people who hurt her, while forging her own path amid a merciless world, that gave me strength and hope as I lay in my comfortable bed, terrified that the end of the world was coming.
May is just a character, birthed from the mind of one particularly brilliant author. Her story is fictional, the history an alternate version of our own. But it was a reminder that even in times worse than ours, people lived and fought and loved and triumphed. May’s resolve to live her life despite the many people in her path who directly or implicitly wish she wouldn’t inspired me. She reminded me that I’ve lived through hard times before, and I emerged on the other side more or less intact. My soul, now, is richer, my own story fuller, from the things I’ve survived and will continue to survive. Just like May.