THE SIN EATER
Review March 23, 2014, by Victoria Ryan
I picked up the novel The Sin Eater by Alice Thomas Ellis hoping it would be the same story of an old Welsh superstition dramatized on the “Rod Serling’s Night Gallery” television program. In the 1972 episode, Sins of the Father, a starving peasant boy is made to eat the funereal meal laid upon his father’s chest so that when the boy assumes the sins of the man, the man can enter heaven. In Ellis’ novel, there is a dying man and there are sins aplenty; but the man’s family is not concerned about his soul—or their own. As the novel unfolds, however, Ellis takes sin, repentance, and judgment off the spiritual shelf and drops them in our lap.
The novel is enjoyable both for the understated humor and language as well as for the antics of the characters. It’s slow to start but it rewards the reader with an ending that gives the beginning more significance than at first meets the eye. The premise is a dysfunctional family gathering at a picturesque Welsh countryside estate. The patriarch, known as the Captain, is dying thus the gathering of his two sons Henry and Michael, their wives Rose and Angela, depressed daughter Ermyn, and a journalist friend Edward. The Captain is lovingly cared for by the otherwise mean-spirited housekeeper Phyllis, who with her son Jack the Liar, and his son Gomer, spends much of her time at the estate.
The story opens with Rose Ellis, the mum of lovely twin children who are planning a trip to their cousin’s house while the family meets at the estate. They will be driven by Jack the Liar, a notorious drunk who is presently enjoying a period of sobriety. Rose, who garners much of the reader’s attention, is an Irish woman and former Roman Catholic who left the Church because she could not tolerate the changes resulting from Vatican II. She verbalizes her anger about the Church, but she acts on her anger towards her in-laws and the help in deviously delightful ways such as decorating the guest room in a manner she knows her sister-in-law will hate, and overcooking an egg so it will be difficult for the guest to eat. Her husband Henry is the Captain’s oldest son, making Rose the woman of the house, a fact which puts her in conflict with Phyllis. Nor does Rose tolerate Gomer who overeats, lies about working, and acts inappropriately upon his lustful feelings.
The story gains speed when the Captain’s younger son Michael and his wife Angela arrive followed by Ermyn. In their marriage, Michael and Angela are masters of passive aggression. They have a broken marriage, though they pretend otherwise. Ermyn is a self-absorbed school girl just entering puberty and is the most sympathetic of the characters. Her name is a creative spelling of “ermine,” a weasel—and how her mother, now deceased, named her is a sad surprise. Ermyn quietly observes the sins in all the social classes around her: lust, envy, greed, hatred, sloth, and gluttony. She is the only character who expresses a desire to make the family better—when she isn’t wishing to be dead. She turns to Catholicism as a last resort but finds no encouragement from Rose who tells her that the Church will leave her disappointed and unsatisfied.
With the family assembled the focus of the story becomes the annual cricket game with the commoners of the village. It is a tradition the Captain established but that nearly everyone else wishes to discontinue as unnecessary. Nor does the family continue the tradition of practicing religion, slipping, the narrator says, “effortlessly into atheism, which fitted them better than the best clothes of Anglicanism.”
The tale of the sin eater is mentioned twice in the novel but unlike the passive repentance found in the myth (salvation gained without the necessity of the sinner’s remorse), the Ellis family does not see a need for salvation, passive or otherwise. They are full of judgment for each other and for the townspeople, but they do not see sin in themselves.
Nonetheless, Ellis makes a statement about the consequences of sin by weaving biblical references of God’s judgment and Jesus’s salvation throughout the novel. The family name Ellis (which jolted me from the start as I wondered why the author gave her fictional family the same surname she chose as her pen name) in Hebrew means the Lord is my God. Alluding to the sheep which shall be separated from the goats on Judgment Day, the author introduces Virginia Woolf (a ewe grazing about the estate) and The Goat (a local pub). There’s also a scene about limp bread and vinegar which reminds readers that Jesus, the Bread of Life, limp from His scourging but not broken, was offered vinegar on the cross before he died for our rebirth.
The names Michael and Angela suggest Michael the Archangel, the defender of faith, which Rose is not. Though Michael Ellis is not without sin, he is the single character who defends the Captain, who is “genuinely fond of Father.” The Captain receives little stage time, but we know about him through the family who does not rush to see him and makes their obligatory visits short. Although the Captain is sinful, the author makes a positive statement about God the Father by writing the Captain as a generous gift-giver to his children although the children do not revere him or seek him out. Like the Gentiles, the housekeeper is an outsider who recognizes the generosity that the family assumes is theirs without responsibility or courtesy.
In the Welsh myth, The Sin Eater title refers to a character who rids the dying person of sin. In this novel, the reverse is true: the characters do not rid themselves of petty differences, grudges, or any other sin but instead are consumed by them. I believe the author is saying that feeling a need for repentance is absent in modern times; that as the Captain approaches physical death, his family members approach spiritual death. But the reader learns, as the characters are about to learn, that the effect of sin has painful flesh and blood consequences—not just for the hereafter, but for the here and now.
This was Ellis’ first novel, originally published in 1977. At least three different covers have been used over the series of printing. One has a black and white family photo. Another captures the countryside charm of a teatime pitcher and table. A third is plain yellow with fern leaves. Perhaps the covers make a statement about sin’s effect on a family, the contrast of sin in a beautiful world, or that sin today is as rampant as weeds but that hope and faith allow us to see through and beyond it. No matter the cover art, all readers will find something of themselves in these characters and that experience that could be the reader’s own life. And that—perhaps more than the unseen fires of hell—should be motivation enough to repent.