“The Sacrament: A Novel” by Olaf Olafsson— A Nun’s Story

Olafsson, Olaf. “The Sacrament: A Novel”, Ecco, 2019.

A Nun’s Story

Amos Lassen

Sister Johanna Marie as a young nun is sent by the Vatican to investigate allegations of misconduct at a Catholic school in Iceland. While there, a young student at the school watches the school’s headmaster, Father August Franz, fall to his death from the church tower.

Twenty years later, the grown man the child became is haunted by the past and he calls the nun back to the scene of the crime. Even though the sister now seeks peace and calm in her twilight years at a convent in France, she has no choice but to make a trip to Iceland again and it brings her former visit, as well as her years as a young woman in Paris back to her. In Paris, she met an Icelandic girl who she has not seen since, but whose acquaintance changed her life. She now relives this relationship while reckoning with the mystery of August Franz’s death and the abuses of power that may have caused it.

Writer Olaf Olafsson looks deeply into the complexity of our past lives and selves; the nature of memory; and the  marks and scars left by the joys and traumas of youth. Affecting and beautifully observed. As we read we become very aware of the tragedy of life’s regrets as well as the possibilities of redemption. The narrative alternates between  the present day and the 1980s as we follow Sister Johanna Marie as she remembers time investigating allegations against the Church at an Icelandic primary school in the 1980s. New information from an eyewitness to the past has emerged, and the truth is finally revealed. 

Sister Johanna had originally been called to Iceland to investigate alleged sexual misconduct between a priest and some of the young boys. After a thorough investigation Sister Johanna knows he is guilty. However, none of the children or their parents will go with her to have it documented officially. The old priest knows her dilemma and taunts her. 

This is one of those books that is very difficult to put down once begun. Narrated in the first person by Pauline who becomes Sister Johanna, the book transitions between three time periods. We read Sister Johanna’s thoughts and what is going on in her life during each time. None of the events that take place are easy for her to deal with yet because of  her grace, dignity and faith, she manages to deal with it all while holding her head high and carrying on with pride. She investigates the sex abuse charges against grade school boys as best she knows how— she was appointed to so only because she knows the Icelandic language and because of a secret the bishop has held over her most of her life. There is a shocking twist at the end that I did not anticipate.

Throughout her journey she reflects on the past and at the end she is able to find peace with the choices she has made throughout her life. Inspiring and thought provoking, this is a story that will stay with you for a long time.”

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