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.
... searing ... elegantly constructed ... Olafsson’s crisp, understated prose and the novel’s chilly Icelandic setting belie the burning tension that blazes under the surface. The Sacrament is a novel about secrets, lies and power. It illustrates how predators choose uniquely vulnerable victims who cannot speak up without great risk, such as the son of a widow who relies on the accused priest for support. The horrors of abuse remain offstage, barely spoken of, yet the entire book is haunted by them. It is sometimes difficult to ascertain when the Iceland chapters are set, but Olafsson’s design suggests the cyclical, ongoing nature of abuse and how its effects ripple out in time and warp everything they touch ... In the devastating conclusion to The Sacrament, as the powerful conspire to conceal truth, readers just might find themselves rooting for vigilante sin.
None of this emerges in sequence, but in a nonlinear narrative structure. We are brought to it slowly, much as memories, insights, and regrets arise in the alternate fog and sudden clarity of daily life ... beautifully crafted, unusually structured novel about the inescapability of memory, the tragic scars left by trauma and abuse, and the abuse of power ... Characters are distinct and vividly drawn as the novel examines the response of individuals and the Catholic church to moral and ethical dilemma. The prose is lyrical, and descriptions are brilliantly evocative of place and atmosphere. This is a novel to read closely, think about, and read again; it’s that good.
If The Sacrament is ostensibly a novel about a woman with secrets, it is more profoundly a consideration of silence ... As the novel’s narrator, Sister Johanna dutifully outlines the events of her life in a manner that, at best, takes on the ruminative, poetic quality of whispered confidence, and, at worst, is the painfully formal, stilted address of an elderly nun. Yet at all times Johanna’s presentation of herself seems riddled with evasion and doubt, leaving the reader to wonder about what she hasn’t said. Olafsson’s sparse, unadorned language intensifies an understanding that this story is indirectly about those who are voiceless ... Sister Johanna’s passivity can be frustrating, particularly in moments of crisis, when one longs for her simply to act, ignoring the consequences. There are, of course, times when Johanna does take matters into her own hands, but they occur only at the climaxes of the novel, and even here there’s a lack of fulfillment, a seemingly intentional lack of closure...Then again, Johanna’s passivity could be a comment on religious conspiracies of silence and the ultimate passivity of God in the face of suffering and abuse ... At times, however, the protagonist’s inertia slows the narrative pace to a shuffle ... Young Pauline’s discovery of and consequent grappling with her desire for Halla at a time when 'deviants' are reviled is conveyed with wonderful, empathic understanding. Her friendship with Halla is fraught with unspoken longing, but it also allows some brief light to enter an otherwise dark story. 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.