Summary and book reviews of The Sacrament by Olaf Olafsson

The Sacrament

A Novel

by Olaf Olafsson

The Sacrament by Olaf Olafsson X
The Sacrament by Olaf Olafsson
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    Readers' Opinion:

     Not Yet Rated
  • First Published:
    Dec 2019, 304 pages
    Paperback:
    Sep 2020, 304 pages

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Book Reviewed by:
Peggy Kurkowski
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About this Book

Book Summary

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.

Excerpt
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 ...

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Reviews

BookBrowse Review

BookBrowse

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...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...continued

Full Review Members Only (582 words).

(Reviewed by Peggy Kurkowski).

Media Reviews

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.

Booklist
[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.

Reader Reviews

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Beyond the Book

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....

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