Wednesday, April 08, 2020

Review and interview: Megan Campisi's Sin Eater, a dark, folklore-infused mystery in an alternate Elizabethan England

Basing her setting closely on Elizabethan England, Campisi shapes a tale of folk customs, dark superstitions, and feminine power through the life of a young outcast who uncovers evidence of terrible injustice.

Jailed for stealing bread, 14-year-old May Owens is made to become a sin eater, hearing deathbed confessions and consuming ritual foods representing the person’s recited sins, thus taking them on herself. Wearing a locked brass collar marking her macabre profession, she finds herself shunned and forced into silence, aside from her appointed role.

When she spies a deer heart atop the coffin of the royal governess, Corliss Ashton, May realizes someone wants to blame Corliss for a transgression she hadn’t confessed to. May’s illiteracy and social isolation complicate her dangerous quest to unearth answers.

Her spunky humor and determination to assert her own value, even in a dead-end occupation at society’s nadir, make her a captivating heroine. Recommend this debut, an original melding of mystery and alternate history, to admirers of Karen Maitland’s folklore-infused medieval thrillers and Diane Setterfield’s Once Upon a River.


Megan Campisi's Sin Eater was published yesterday by Atria/Simon & Schuster. I wrote the review above for Booklist's 2/15 issue (reprinted with permission). I also had the opportunity to ask the author some questions. Thanks to her publicist for arranging for the Q&A below, and to Megan Campisi for her responses.

Do you recall where you first heard about the concept of a sin eater? What inspired you to choose this unusual role for your protagonist?

I don’t recall when I first heard about sin eaters, but I know that I was fascinated (I’m a history nerd). I was drawn in by the syncretism of the ritual (part Christian and part 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 a young one.

In the author’s note at the beginning, you mention the historical scaffolding for Sin Eater’s background, but that it’s “spun out of fantasy… this is not history, it’s fiction.” How did you decide how closely to stick to Elizabethan England, and how far to diverge from it?

For the story I envisioned to work, I knew the world needed to be syncretic too, part historical, part fictional. Sin eating couldn’t remain an eccentric post-mortem ritual (as it was historically), but needed to transform into a deep, necessary communion between two people that was woven into the fabric of everyday society. All the fictional elements grew from this beginning.

I’ve always enjoyed reading dark, atmospheric mysteries, this book included. What appealed to you about writing in this style?

I’m drawn to gritty, visceral stories where I’m transported by the sensory elements. As a writer, the only thing you can be sure you share with your reader is the experience of living in a human body, so I try to lean on physical elements in my storytelling.

Did you find it challenging, as a novelist, working with a narrator who was socially isolated, to the point of being forbidden from speaking?

Megan Campisi
(credit: Gates Hurand)
Absolutely! This was a huge challenge, but a welcome one. When I’m not writing, I teach physical theater, which is a branch of performance that considers physicality as a language and privileges visual storytelling over verbal. This background helped immensely in working out how to communicate information between characters and to the reader.

Much creative thought must have gone into developing the “compendium of diverse sins both large and small and their according foods” that guides the sin eaters’ menu, such as it is. Can you share any insights into how you came up with it?

I spent a lot of time reading through Tudor cookbooks! In selecting pairings of sins and foods, I grouped some by types of sins (for example, sins related to envy all involve cream) and some by onomatopoeia (to me, the sound of “gristle” fits its sin, wrath). I also intended for some pairings to feel whimsical. I wanted to recreate the experience one has when hearing a nursery rhyme from hundreds of years ago: there are elements that make sense and others that simply don’t because their meaning has been lost over time.

About the Author

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 the L’École International de Théâtre Jacques Lecoq. The author of Sin Eater, she lives in Brooklyn, New York, with her family. Visit her website at


  1. I've been looking forward to this one! It will make a good followup to The Mirror and the Light, which I'm halfway through...

  2. Hope Mirror and the Light was as good as expected! This one would be a good followup.

  3. I wrote a book set in 1660 and found the research rewarding but hard work. It's a real skill to 'do good research' - I failed somewhat resulting in a not good manuscript but I look forward to reading this.