An act of petty thievery changes the course of May Owens’ life in this richly imagined tale set in the late 16th century. Tossed in jail for stealing bread, the young laundress awaits a sentencing that is delayed by several days. Ultimately her life is spared—but it is changed irrevocably. An “s” is brutally tattooed on her tongue, and a brass collar is shackled around her neck. May must now navigate the restrictive and lonely life of a sin eater. Unable to be touched or spoken to, May is tasked with listening to the confessions of the dying then eating symbolic foods representative of those sins, thus absolving the dying and bearing the burden of their guilt as her own.
Such a dire punishment is predictably grim, but Campisi’s humor and deft characterization successfully imbue the young sin eater with the necessary cunning and vulnerability to persevere. She finds succor at the home of a practiced sin eater, learning the ritual and expectations of her new vocation. When they are called to the Queen’s palace to eat the sins of the royal governess, a deer heart appears in the offering, representing a sin to which the woman did not confess. The experienced sin eater refuses to eat the heart and is taken to prison and tortured to death. Young May vows to avenge her peer’s cruel treatment, but first she must find out who placed the deer heart on the governess’s coffin, and why.
Set within a thinly disguised backdrop of Tudor London, Campisi eschews strict historical fact and instead capitalizes on the time’s obsession with sin and the afterlife to build a world that feels fresh yet true to the conventions and beliefs of the time. A hugely enjoyable read.