The Sacrament by Olaf Olafsson
Published by Ecco
Publication date: December 3, 2019
Genres: Book Clubs, Fiction, Literary
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Set in Iceland, The Sacrament is a spare and chilling novel about the Catholic Church. An elderly nun, Sister Johanna Marie, is called from her convent in France to look into an accusation at a Catholic school in Iceland, where she taught decades ago. During her tenure, a young boy witnessed a priest fall to his death from a tower. This boy, now a man, sends a letter for Sister Johanna to the local bishop. It contains previously unknown details of the event. For Sister Johanna, this is an unwelcome journey to a place and a piece of her past she’d prefer to forget.
Author Olaf Olafsson’s writing is as coldly quiet as the novel’s setting. Even in her most private moments, Sister Johanna is stoic, reserved. There is tenderness on her part for the boy, but she has no more power than he does. Instead, both have been manipulated by men. For Sister Johanna, it is the same cardinal who now insists she go to Iceland and make this situation disappear. He knows something about her that he has used, even from a great distance, to shape her life choices. She had hoped he’d forgotten about her after going to work at the Vatican, but his reappearance brings back painful memories.
This is not a thriller. There is no dramatic surge towards a climactic ending. Instead, it’s a story about an entire institution’s implacable force to control and contain. A story imbued with an atmosphere of icy darkness that reveals how power is wielded against all the vulnerable, not just children. Habits and rich vestments cloak in sanctity the very real people who are nuns and priests. In the same way, The Sacrament once again reminds us that the rich trappings of the Catholic Church can hide ugly truths.
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Susie | Novel Visits says
You’ve done it again, finding a book I’d not heard of before. This one sounds really intense and like one you might have to be in just the right sort of frame of mind to read.
That’s the odd thing- it wasn’t intense. It was written with such reserve that it’s as if it the entire story was encased in ice. At the same time, you can’t help but be drawn in and to have an emotional response. Also, the ending is not dark, but touching.
Lovely review! Sounds a bit on the heavy side for me, especially in winter, but also sounds compelling and thoughtful.
The subject matter is heavy, but definitely not news or surprising. It’s a very subtle book.
Yeah I heard the author speak about this novel on the New York Times book review podcast. (I think Dec. 27 episode). Not sure I can read another on the Church and abuse … but I’m curious about his writing … and that setting and cover are compelling.
Interesting! I need to listen to that. I’m with you about not wanting to hear more, but this is very subtle. It’s much more about the power dynamic and the nun- her secret. It was incredibly evocative- I felt emotionally chilled throughout.