Sister Johanna Marie, a French nun, has been dispatched by her archbishop to Iceland to follow up on new information regarding an investigation she had undertaken there two decades earlier. She had been chosen for the original investigation because of her ability to speak Icelandic, a language spoken by few outside the north Atlantic island nation.
The events contributing to the sister’s ability to speak this relatively obscure language is one of two threads driving the narrative of Olaf Olafsson’s recent novel “The Sacrament.”
The other theme is the content of an anonymous letter, never revealed verbatim in the book, sent to the bishop of Iceland, then forwarded to the Vatican. The letter leveled accusations against Father August Frans, headmaster of a private school catering to the small Roman Catholic population of Reykjavik. During Sister Marie’s first visit to Iceland the headmaster had fallen to his death while attempting to correct problems with a carillon in the church tower, an event written off by local authorities as an unfortunate accident.
Olafsson’s story intercuts, chapter by chapter, between three distinct eras in the sister’s life; the post-adolescent student of theology at the Sorbonne in Paris; the younger nun, fresh from her final vows, first sent to Iceland to investigate the accusations; and the older nun recalled to Reykjavik to consider newly emerging evidence about the decades-old mystery of the headmaster’s death and the events leading up to it. Olafsson manages these transitions skillfully, never leaving the reader in confusion about which chapter in Sister Marie’s life they are reading.
“The Sacrament” is effective on several levels. The reader is drawn deeper and deeper into the unraveling of the mystery of the headmaster’s death and the accusations that may have led to it. In a parallel narrative, Olafsson reveals Sister Marie’s deepening understanding of the events early in her life that have made her who she is in her later years.
Olafsson brings both narratives to conclusions that are surprising and poignant without feeling contrived. Readers who are searching for a late winter read, during a time of short, cold days, will find “The Sacrament” a satisfying experience.