The BookBrowse Review

Published September 16, 2020

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The Sacrament
The Sacrament
A Novel
by Olaf Olafsson

Paperback (1 Sep 2020), 304 pages.
Publisher: Ecco
ISBN-13: 9780062899880

The haunting, vivid story of a nun whose past returns to her in unexpected ways, all while investigating a mysterious death and a series of harrowing abuse claims.

A young nun is sent by the Vatican to investigate allegations of misconduct at a Catholic school in Iceland. During her time there, on a gray winter's day, a young student at the school watches the school's headmaster, Father August Franz, fall to his death from the church tower.

Two decades later, the child—now a grown man, haunted by the past—calls the nun back to the scene of the crime. Seeking peace and calm in her twilight years at a convent in France, she has no choice to make a trip to Iceland again, a trip that brings her former visit, as well as her years as a young woman in Paris, powerfully and sometimes painfully to life. In Paris, she met an Icelandic girl who she has not seen since, but whose acquaintance changed her life, a relationship she relives all while reckoning with the mystery of August Franz's death and the abuses of power that may have brought it on.

In The Sacrament, critically acclaimed novelist Olaf Olafsson looks deeply at the complexity of our past lives and selves; the faulty nature of memory; and the indelible mark left by the joys and traumas of youth. Affecting and beautifully observed, The Sacrament is both propulsively told and poignantly written—tinged with the tragedy of life's regrets but also moved by the possibilities of redemption, a new work from a novelist who consistently surprises and challenges.

The Sacrament

He had committed a crime. While they were knitting he had allowed his mind to wander. He liked to let his thoughts drift to distant places, where there was no sadness and the nights were filled with pleasant dreams. Sometimes he would travel to the farm where he had spent the summer before last, to the barn, where he threw himself onto the hay, or to the stream, where brook trout hid beneath the banks. Sometimes he would lose himself in the comic books his father brought back from his voyages. But he never let his thoughts take him to the hospital or the cemetery.

She had snatched the knitting from him and ordered him to place his palms facedown on the table. His hands trembled slightly, but of course he obeyed. The other children pretended to be absorbed in their own work, but he could feel their eyes watching him, and her as she loomed over him.

Still you insist upon sullying yourself in the eyes of the Lord, she said, unraveling his work, the first tentative rows of a scarf. And what is this mess supposed to be?

Assuming she didn't expect him to reply, the boy remained silent. But she repeated the question, hissing this time:

What is it?

A scarf.

She scoffed, holding the tangled wool aloft for the other children to see.

Look at this scarf! Who wants to try it on?

Too terrified not to humor her, the children gave nervous, stifled laughs. Save for her class favorites, two girls who chortled out loud.

Clasping one of the knitting needles, she pressed it into the back of his right hand.

Why did our Savior suffer on the cross? Why? He suffered for you. They drove nails into his hands, like this ... That is how he saved you. And what do you do to repay him? You belittle him. You shame his memory.

With each emphasis, she dug the needle harder into his hand. Tears pricked his eyes, but he dared not make a sound. When at last she fell silent, she waited a few seconds, which seemed to him like an eternity, before pulling the needle back and ordering him to stand up. He followed her into the corridor where she unlocked the broom cupboard and pushed him inside. He heard the key turn, and then her footsteps receding.

He knew the cupboard well. It was where they kept buckets and mops, detergent and cleaning cloths, as well as salt for de-icing the sidewalks. Once, he had used an upturned bucket as a seat, which had earned him further chastisement when she finally opened the door. And so, this time he decided to stand and gaze out the window high on the wall, a tiny window that looked out on the church. He rubbed his sore hand, where the needle had left a red indentation, but no blood.

The sky was thick with clouds, and soon it started to snow. They were small flakes that took so long to find their way to the ground that he wondered if they had gotten lost. He followed their descent, moving closer to the window to see if any of them had made it all the way. Standing on tiptoes, he could see across the yard to the fence between the school and the church, and up to the gray, flat-topped tower. He soon grew tired of craning his neck and gave in to the temptation to turn over one of the buckets and climb on top of it.

That was when he noticed something moving in the open window at the top of the tower. His rubbed his eyes and saw to his amazement that Batman himself had suddenly appeared in all his glory. His hero surveyed the city then turned toward him, as though aware of his exact location, giving the boy a meaningful, reassuring look.

Batman would save him, just as he had so often in the past, and together they would set off on an adventure, down streets and alleyways, to the harbor and out over the city—ready to assist anyone who might be in distress.

The boy held his breath as his friend took to the air. Bracing his elbows on the sill, he lifted himself up to watch the dark figure swoop down from the tower, wings flapping. For a moment, he felt a surge of hope, as well as the thrill of confirmation, for he had always feared that Batman existed only in his comic books and his imagination. But then, in the blink of an eye, his hopes were dashed, as his hero's wings appeared to falter, and he flipped over and plummeted, landing on the turf with a dull thud. For a while, the boy stared at the body on the snowy ground, slowly realizing that his hero had inexplicably transformed into Father August Frans, or rather a dark heap who only a stone's throw away showed no sign of life.

Full Excerpt

From The Sacrament by Olaf Olafsson. Copyright © 2019 by Olaf Olafsson. Reprinted by permission of Ecco, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers.

A haunting novel set primarily in Iceland about one woman's struggle with her painful past as she seeks closure on a case of abuse within the Catholic Church.

Print Article Publisher's View   

It is 2009 and Sister Johanna Marie lives a quiet life in a convent in the rural French countryside, tending to her beloved rose garden and spending time with George Harrison, her rescue dog that resembles her favorite Beatle. Her twilight years are shattered, however, when a person from her past arrives, seeking her assistance on a matter she considered settled two decades ago: the case of Father August Frans, who leaped from a church tower to his death in Iceland in 1987. The letter is from the sole witness to Frans' death, a young boy who is now a man, and contains the ominous words, "I didn't tell you everything…"

And so begins Olafsson's ambitious novel The Sacrament, which explores in elegant and hushed tones the inner sanctums of one woman's heart as she journeys back to a cold, forbidding landscape to settle—once and for all—the mystery of Father August Frans' death and her role in attaining justice within an indifferent Catholic Church. But this journey back to the scene of the crime is only one of three interwoven storylines, each set in a different time and place, and representing a different stage of the protagonist's life.

We see Pauline (her name before taking vows) as a young student in Paris at the Sorbonne in 1965, then as Sister Johanna Marie investigating the allegations of abuse around Father August Frans in late 1987, and finally her return to Iceland in 2009 upon receipt of the enigmatic letter that reopens the official case. We learn Sister Johanna was selected to assist in this investigation because of her fluency in the Icelandic language. Some of the most beautiful moments of the book appear as amber memories of her days as a student, sharing a room with an Icelandic girl named Halla. Halla is everything Pauline is not: outgoing, spontaneous and trusting to a fault. Their friendship is the great arc of the story from beginning to end, one that defines and then redefines Sister Johanna in the wake of her discoveries in Iceland, both in 1987 and 2009.

Beautifully rendered, Iceland is another major character of the story. Olafsson treats the uninitiated to rich depictions of endless horizons, mixed with bitter cold and blowing snowdrifts that swirl around one's vision until no light is seen. It is a frigid, lonely landscape, one that mirrors the barrenness of the human heart in the face of regret and remorse.

There are some slight issues in the telling, however. The weaving of the multiple storylines, especially of the two visits to Iceland, can be slightly difficult for the reader to follow. It could take half the book before one realizes there are two journeys to Iceland 20 years apart, the first when Sister Johanna is sent to investigate charges of abuse against Father Frans, and the second after she receives the letter from the sole witness to Frans' death. In addition, the artistic decision to eschew quotation marks for dialogue stalls the delivery as one tries to discern an inner thought from a verbal statement.

With these quibbles aside, however, The Sacrament is a powerful exploration of faith and the crucial role that doubt plays in its inception and maintenance. With its reverent language of memory and regret, longing and loss, justice and vengeance, the book seeks to find its own answer to which is the greatest of these qualities: faith, hope and love. The beauty in Olafsson's prose is that each reader may come away with a different answer.

Reviewed by Peggy Kurkowski

Entertainment Weekly
The latest from Olafsson…feels at first like a classic study in Scandi noir, that austere genre of frosty characters and snow-flecked mystery. But something more tender and ephemeral lurks beneath Sacrament‘s bare outlines … Moving in clean declarative prose between ’60s Paris, ’80s Iceland, and the modern day, the novel’s core temperature sometimes runs too cool; there’s real devastation, though, in the revelations of its final chapters, and freedom, too.

New York Times
Olafsson’s sparse, unadorned language intensifies an understanding that this story is indirectly about those who are voiceless...At times, however, the protagonist’s inertia slows the narrative pace to a shuffle...The representation of continuing sexual repression, conveyed along with the suppression of justice for the survivors of abuse, had an excoriating effect on me as a reader, but this is to Olafsson’s credit rather than fault. He evokes the very real pain endured by those who suffer without recourse.

Publishers Weekly
The author shines a light on the enigmatic workings of the Catholic Church and, in an astounding dénouement, delves into the balance between justice and vengeance, and the power of conviction, absolution, and redemption. This is an incisive novel.

[A] gripping, masterfully constructed story toward redemption and justice.

Library Journal
[T]he novel confounds our expectations, sifting through memory, as it evolves into a low-simmering psychological thriller. Recommended.

Kirkus Reviews (starred review)
Emotionally gratifying and spiritually challenging—a compelling novel that grabs the reader's psyche and won't let go.

Author Blurb Roger Rosenblatt
It's a rare story that marries the suspense of a mystery with depth of thought, but in The Sacrament, Olaf Olafsson manages this alliance with a scientist's mind and an artist's eye... One reads this novel both eager and wary of knowing its secret fully, like the meaning of a dream.

Author Blurb Nickolas Butler, author of Shotgun Lovesongs and Little Faith
The Sacrament is a miraculous novel. A delicate, literary page-turner, narrated by an unforgettable character whose life the reader will long remember after the last page is turned. With austere and beautiful prose, Olafsson has written a novel full of love, mystery, and regret. Fantastic.

Print Article Publisher's View  

Iceland and the Catholic Church

Map showing Iceland's position southeast of Greenland and northwest of United KingdomOne of the main characters in The Sacrament is truly its setting: Iceland. Serving as the emotional nexus for multiple characters in the novel, it stamps the narrative with an authoritative and unyielding presence.

Iceland is a Nordic country located in the North Atlantic, an island that is the 18th largest in the world and Europe's second-largest after Great Britain. With roughly 332,000 residents, Iceland has the lowest population density in Europe. The country is about 40,000 square miles, and most settlements are located along the coastline with its magnificent fjords and harbors. The island's interior, also known as the Highlands, consists of sand, mountains and lava fields—the terrain and the cold make it largely uninhabitable. The Central Highlands are the coldest, while the north side of the island sees more snow than the warmer, wetter and windier southern coast.

In spiritual matters, Icelanders have religious freedom guaranteed under the Constitution, although the Church of Iceland (a Lutheran body) is the official state church. Iceland remains very secular, though; as with many other Nordic countries, church attendance is relatively low. The number of Icelanders registered in the state church is declining at a rate of more than one percent per year.

Christ the King CathedralDespite being the third-largest denomination in Iceland (a predominantly Protestant country), Catholics remain a minority. Their population is growing, however, largely due to immigration. Catholics made up just one percent of the population in 1994, but that number has increased to four percent (roughly 13,990 people) as of October 2019. The Diocese of Reykjavik serves the entire island, and Christ the King Cathedral, with its iconic flat-topped tower, serves as the official cathedral of the Catholic Church in Iceland.

The Reformation of the 16th century outlawed Catholicism in Iceland, but the faith returned in 1857 when two French priests undertook a mission there to minister to French fishermen along the coastline. A few years later, they settled in Landakot, a settlement in Reykjavik (Iceland's capital), where the cathedral was eventually built. When Iceland ratified its Constitution in 1874, the freedom of religion was one of its precepts. This gave the Catholic Church a fresh opportunity for missions to the isolated, beautiful and forbidding island. The patron saint of Iceland is Saint Thorlack Thorhallsson, a medieval bishop of Skálhot (a city 55 miles east of Reykjavik) from 1178-1193 who sought to reform the morality of pastors and laymen. Considered a holy man during his lifetime, he was canonized in Iceland in 1198, but was officially recognized as a saint of the Roman Catholic Church on January 14, 1984, when he was canonized by Pope John Paul II.

World map showing Iceland, courtesy of OnTheWorldMap

Christ the King Cathedral photograph by Jon Gretarsson

Filed under Places, Cultures & Identities

By Peggy Kurkowski

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