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“A riveting depiction of hard-won female empowerment that weaves together meticulous research, unsolved murder—and an unforgettable young heroine.” —The Washington Post

The Handmaid’s Tale meets Alice in Wonderland in this gripping and imaginative historical novel about a shunned orphan girl in 16th-century England who is ensnared in a deadly royal plot and must turn her subjugation into her power.

The Sin Eater walks among us, unseen, unheard
Sins of our flesh become sins of Hers
Following Her to the grave, unseen, unheard
The Sin Eater Walks Among Us.


For the crime of stealing bread, fourteen-year-old May receives a life sentence: she must become a Sin Eater—a shunned woman, brutally marked, whose fate is to hear the final confessions of the dying, eat ritual foods symbolizing their sins as a funeral rite, and thereby shoulder their transgressions to grant their souls access to heaven.

Orphaned and friendless, apprenticed to an older Sin Eater who cannot speak to her, May must make her way in a dangerous and cruel world she barely understands. When a deer heart appears on the coffin of a royal governess who did not confess to the dreadful sin it represents, the older Sin Eater refuses to eat it. She is taken to prison, tortured, and killed. To avenge her death, May must find out who placed the deer heart on the coffin and why.

“A keenly researched feminist arc of unexpected abundance, reckoning, intellect, and ferocious survival” (Maria Dahvana Headley, author of The Mere Wife) Sin Eater is “a dark, rich story replete with humor, unforgettable characters, and arcane mysteries. It casts a spell on your heart and mind until the final page” (Jennie Melamed, author of Gather the Daughters).

This reading group guide for Sin Eater includes an introduction, discussion questions, ideas for enhancing your book club, and a Q&A with author Megan Campisi. The suggested questions are intended to help your reading group find new and interesting angles and topics for your discussion. We hope that these ideas will enrich your conversation and increase your enjoyment of the book.

Introduction

The Handmaid’s Tale meets Alice in Wonderland in this inventive historical novel about a girl in sixteenth-century England who is ensnared in a deadly plot at the heart of the Queen’s court.

For the crime of stealing bread, fourteen-year-old May receives a life sentence: she must become a sin eater—a shunned woman, brutally marked, whose fate is to hear the final confessions of the dying, eat ritual foods symbolizing their sins as a funeral rite, and thereby shoulder their transgressions to grant their souls access to heaven.

Orphaned and friendless, apprenticed to an older sin eater who cannot speak to her, May must make her way in a dangerous and cruel world she barely understands. When a deer heart appears on the coffin of a royal governess who did not confess to the dreadful sin it represents, the older Sin Eater refuses to eat it. She is taken to prison,

tortured, and killed. To avenge her death, May must find out who placed the deer heart on the coffin and why.

An extraordinary, lyrical feat of imagination, Sin Eater is the story of a world where treason and secrets abound within a corrupt, violent court—and an outcast young woman must uncover a long-buried secret that has resurfaced with a vengeance.

Topics and Questions for Discussion

1. Read “A Selection from A Compendium of Diverse Sins Both Large and Small and Their According Foods” (pages ix–xi). Discuss your reaction to the sins and foods. Do you understand why they were paired? Would you add any sins to the list, and what would be their corresponding foods?

2. Sin eating is mentioned in the biblical story of Adam and Eve (page 8) and also in the story of Hans and Greta, based on Hansel and Gretel (page 25). How does the author’s fictional rendition change your perception of the traditional story of Eve and the fairy tale?

3. Compare the first Recitation and Eating that May witnesses. Describe her reaction. May says, “I begin to shake again. From somewhere deep. If I knew where my soul lived, I would say it comes from there” (page 41). What do you think she means by that?

4. Once back at the house, May is comforted by the elder Sin Eater (page 44). What has shifted in their relationship? Why do you think this comfort was given?

5. In what ways does May’s ostracization take away her power but also give her power? How would you feel if you were in her position?

6. Describe May’s first interaction with the Country Mouse. Why doesn’t she tell him the truth about herself?

7. May recalls an incident with her family altar. What happens? How does it illustrate her parents’ relationship and also the circumstances of that time period?

8. Discuss the Eating for Corliss. Are you surprised by how it unfolds? Why doesn’t the older Sin Eater eat the deer’s heart? Why does May do it in her place? Should she have?

9. Why does May decide to try to save Ruth? Do you agree or disagree with her decision, and why?

10. What does Ruth discover when she overhears the guard talking about sin eaters? How does this affect what you already know about sin eaters?

11. “Lying above Da’s bones like on a bed, I understand why sin eaters were made. Carrying such feelings is too much for one little heart, too much for one body. There must be hope of shedding regret, grief, sorrow, sloughing them off like a skin and going into death free and light. Else we’d never be able to live” (page 115). Discuss this statement. Do you agree or disagree with May, and why?

12. During Bessie’s Recitation, she says to May, “With how you came into the world and what you’ve seen lately you should know, the more you live, the more the sinner and the sinless can’t be pulled apart. All of us just getting by” (page 157). Reflect on the events that unfolded. Is it possible to be sinless? What sins are unforgivable or forgivable?

13. How does May change after learning the truth about herself and her family? Discuss her character arc through Sin Eater.

14. Paul makes an important decision when he, May, and Black Fingers are in the actors’ tent. Given what you know about Paul’s character, discuss your reaction to his final choice.

15. What are your thoughts on the ending? Did you picture a different fate for May?

Enhance Your Book Club

1. Host an Eating with your book club, but instead of choosing foods for sins—because that would be horrifying—choose foods for your virtues and describe each pairing.

2. The following books were mentioned in the acknowledgments as sources of inspiration for the author: Elizabeth’s Women by Tracy Borman, The Queen’s Conjurer by Benjamin Woolley, and Rogues, Vagabonds, and Sturdy Beggars, edited by Arthur F. Kinney. Sin Eater also draws comparison to The Handmaid’s Tale and Alice in Wonderland. Read these books and discuss how their influence can be seen in Sin Eater.

3. The Queen’s tapestry reveals all in Sin Eater. If you’re craft inclined, weave your own mini tapestry and see what secrets you can hide. Or you can use color pencils to sketch an image that contains more than it seems.

A Conversation with Megan Campisi

Q: This is more of a “chicken or the egg” question, but how did the idea for this novel first come to you? Did you intend to use first-person narrative? Were the poisonings in the Queen’s court always meant to be the central mystery?

A: Full disclosure: I am a history nerd. So when I discovered sin eating, I was fascinated. Fascinated by the syncretism of Christian ritual and pagan, by the essential role played by a social pariah, and by how little we know about the custom and the people who practiced it. I knew I wanted to explore the point of view of a sin eater, and the first-person narrative felt like the best way to do so. The central mystery came after and grew out of my love of the Elizabethan period and its intrigues. I liked the resonance between a powerful female monarch and a powerless female sin eater both locked in struggles for agency in their lives.

Q: Take us through your research process. Did you make any surprising findings?

A: Research is one of my favorite parts of writing (remember, I’m a nerd!). My sources ranged from an 1892 folklore journal to Elizabethan cookbooks. One of my favorite discoveries was that in 1560 a wax effigy of Elizabeth I was found stuck with pins in Lincoln’s Inn Fields in London. It was believed to be evidence of a witch’s spell employing sympathetic magic to transfer the actions performed on the effigy (or “poppet”) to the person it represented. I drew on this for Fair Hair’s “witchcraft.”

Q: It’s interesting that sin eaters in this novel are all women. Is this historically true, and if so, why couldn’t men be sin eaters?

A: Both men and women sin eaters have been documented in the scant information we have about the custom, but I chose to make all sin eaters women in the book as part of the world-building. I wanted to make a strong connection to Eve eating the forbidden fruit, and I also liked that having only women sin eaters gives May a sort of surrogate maternal lineage to replace the appalling Daffreys.

Q: The cover for Sin Eater is tantalizing! Can you talk about the art process and what inspired it? Was the pomegranate always meant to be the sole fruit?

A: I’m so glad you like the cover. Finding the right image takes time. We went through several iterations (all gorgeous—thanks to the amazing team at Atria). An apple was also considered, but a pomegranate seemed the best fit. Plus, it represents witchcraft in the story, which is a nice detail.

Q: The rhymes and songs were also enjoyable to read. Did you compose them yourself? Why did you choose to include them in the novel?

A: For an illiterate character like May, a major source of knowledge would be songs and stories that were shared orally. Composing new ones and altering classics allowed me to share with the reader some of the subtle differences between May’s world and ours. And, candidly, I really love nursery rhymes. To me, they are delicious little puzzles that offer a connection to the lives, cultures, and experiences of generations before us. As a child, I loved discovering the “true meaning” within them—the darker the better. I wanted to share that joy with readers.

Q: May has been persecuted and mistreated all her life, but certain characters like Country Mouse, Instrument Maker, and the other Unseen accept her, despite her status as Sin Eater. How important was it for you to include characters who were sympathetic toward her?

A: To me, May’s story is about deciding who you are for yourself but also finding your true family. The Unseen exist in every society, and it was essential for me that May find strength, solace, and, finally, a home within those communities.

Q: You also write plays that have been performed around the world, and elements of this form of literature come through occasionally. I sensed it in the spectacle of a Recitation or an Eating. You also incorporate an acting troupe into the story. But how does your background as a playwright affect your writing process? How are playwriting and novel writing similar or different?

A: In plays, a character’s action and speech are your major means of storytelling—inner dialogue is very challenging to express (unless you’re in a musical), and I naturally lean on these storytelling elements in my novel writing.

In terms of writing process, when I’m working on a play, it’s deeply collaborative and highly physical. I’m in and out of rehearsal rooms. I’m trying out ideas onstage. I used to be an actor as well, so the physical aspects of playmaking frequently surface in my novel writing. For example, I unconsciously act out all the roles while I write. I have to write at home, because if I’m at a café, I will forget and start talking aloud with the characters as I write!

Q: Could sin eaters ever exist in our current society? Do you believe there are “new” sins? What would you add to the list and what would be their corresponding foods?

A: Oof, this is a hard one. I think people reconcile their transgressions in many different ways today. While sins differ across time and culture, I suspect sins that seem new may just be old ones in new garb.

Q: What are you working on next? Will your next project play with similar themes?

A: Right now I’m working on another historical novel about women spies in the American Civil War. It centers on women’s relationships with each other across a deep political divide and if that divide can be bridged—something that’s been on my mind a lot lately.
Photograph by Gates Hurand

Megan Campisi is a playwright, novelist, and teacher. Her plays have been performed in China, France, and the United States. She attended Yale University and L’École International de Théâtre Jacques Lecoq. The author of Sin Eater, she lives in Brooklyn, New York, with her family.

"In this alternative history audiobook, exquisitely narrated by Shiromi Arserio, sin eaters are an integral part of society who take on the dead's sins by eating a ritual meal. Sentenced to this life for a petty crime, young teen May becomes the lowest of the outcasts. After her mentor dies for refusing to eat an unconfessed sin, it is up to May to figure out the mystery behind the item's appearance. A treat to one's ears, Arserio's performance captures the richness of May's sixteenth century—from the struggles of the town's poorest inhabitants to the opulence of its nobility. With Arserio's clear voice and even pacing, the narration allows listeners to lose themselves in the story."

– AudioFile Magazine

More books from this reader: Shiromi Arserio