The Sin Eaters

Written by Andrew Beahrs
Review by Eileen Charbonneau

Set in Jacobean England, The Sin Eaters follows the path of the herbalist Sarah, runaway wife Mary, and outcast Bill away from Monkshead and the murderous hold of Sam Ridley, a land clearing master, and toward the coastal city of Northam, their place of reckoning and possible flight to the New World.

Haunted Sarah sets the plot in motion when she claims revenge on Ridley for his exacting punishment on her as a scold. She flees with donkey, cow and provisions and soon finds fellow sufferer Bill, stripped naked and abused after being tricked into becoming a sin eater—a pariah who consumes food offerings placed overnight on corpses. Sarah devises a way to convince him that his body is once again his own and not a receptacle of the sins of others.

As the two travel toward the sea, they take on Mary, a gentlewoman who has been gambled away to a clockmaker. Mary helps them find refuge on her mother’s estate. But Ridley finds them there and bides his time as he plans to exact his revenge. Mary runs off with a member of the household. Sarah’s knowledge of herbs enables escape, and she and Bill reach Northam, but the enraged Ridley finds them at the shoreline between worlds.

In language that is dense, intimate, and beautiful, Andrew Beahrs’s richly imagined novel travels though meadow, forest, plague-flagged town, and ruined monastery. It is peopled by characters brimming with life. Sarah, attempting to live her remaining years touched by grace and wonder, is unforgettable. Highly recommended.