Ilsa J. Bick’s The Sin Eater’s Confession is a dark, thoughtful look into the heart of homophobia in the US, and the ways in which it can warp the lives of the people around it, not just the immediate victims. It’s also a book that is quite simply fantastic, with clear, lyrical, elegant language, a graceful plot structure, and rich detail that brings the setting and characters to vivid, crisp life. You can almost smell the scenes sometimes, and the story crackles with tension throughout as it winds inexorably to its bitter and awful end; the end that you knew was coming, but hoped wouldn’t.
It’s written in the style of a confessional. A young soldier starts scribbling down his story because he wants to make sure it’s told, and knows that there’s a chance he might not live through action to tell it. As he tells the story, he exposes his soul in an acute, painful, earnest, and open way while he meanders and winds through the tale, often shying away from subjects and then dancing back to them later in a way that feels very authentic. Few of us set out to tell a complex story about an event we’re still ashamed and conflicted about and manage to tell it in a straight line. Instead we waver and weave as we get closer and closer to the point.
His confession begins in high school. Our narrator, Ben, experiences a lot of pressure from his mother to do well in school and go off to Yale to become a doctor. It’s pretty much what his whole life has become, but that changes when he starts helping on a local farm after the death of the oldest son. It’s there that he meets Jimmy, who doesn’t quite mesh with his father’s ideal for him, and Ben’s sympathetic to his plight. Jimmy’s father wants a strapping farmer boy like the son he lost, but Jimmy is slight and sensitive, with a secret; and that secret isn’t just a skill for photography.
A series of catastrophic events unfolds as Jimmy is outed as gay and Ben is pulled into the mess, and it culminates when Jimmy is beaten to death in a crime so violent that his remains are almost unrecognisable. Ben wants to know who killed his friend, but he’s also become a suspect because of his own entanglement with Jimmy, and the crime itself. Consumed by guilt, he finds himself driven in all directions, and ultimately, that’s what turns him away from the his family and the things he knows to enlist in the military.
Bick’s real-world military experience comes to bear here, adding more layers of authenticity to the novel. Ben’s choice feels true to him and the story, and it’s not used as a cheap plot device. Ben is trying to work something out, and that something is deeply complex. One part of him is consumed with guilt—he feels responsible for what happened to Jimmy, and struggles on a tightrope as he tries to come to grips with it. On the one hand, he argues, it might have been impossible to intervene with so much stacked against Jimmy. On the other, he had an ethical and moral obligation to step in, rather than allowing the crime to happen, and that means he bears responsibility for what happened.
Ben’s also conflicted about his own emotions and sexuality, and Bick walks that balance extremely well in The Sin Eater’s Confession. He’s sexually confused, unsure about how to respond to Jimmy and his own feelings, or lack thereof, about him. Ben wonders if he’s gay, how he could tell if he was, how he could tell if he wasn’t, especially since he’s never had a girlfriend. In the face of what happened to Jimmy and the hostility for gay men in Merit, Wisconsin, he’s also aware of the danger his confusion represents back home.
This is a character who wants, in many ways, to be a hero, and it’s reflected over and over again in the text. Not in the simplistic sense of ‘Ben joins the military to become a hero,’ but in the sense that he feels like he failed Jimmy and wants to make it right, and he does so in the form of this confession. Both Ben and the title reflect on the role of the ‘sin eater,’ a person who would travel to the dead and dying to consume their sins[1. Literally, they’d eat pieces of bread passed over the bodies of the dead or handed to them by dying people.] in life so they’d know peace in death. Sin eaters were found in parts of the United Kingdom as well as the US, and they received a small fee for their work.
But with their work came the heavy burden of being an exile, also. Sin eaters were ostracised from society because of who they were and what they did, taking on the weight of the world and the sins of their communities. Ben argues that they should have been heralded as heroes for taking that upon themselves, celebrated instead of being pushed to the margins of society, and in his own confession, you can see him struggling with this as part of his identity, acknowledging how sometimes, you isolate yourself because of sin. In the end, Ben knows that he couldn’t be a hero to Jimmy in death, couldn’t be the person Jimmy needed him to be when he was needed, but perhaps he can make a difference after death, even if it means losing everything.