The Sacrament by Olaf Olafsson
Mystery | In Translation
Published by Ecco
Released December 3rd, 2019
Goodreads | Amazon
Note: I received a free finished copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. This in no way affects my opinion.
I don’t get to travel much, so instead, I travel through the books I read. I seek out translated novels in order to learn more about the world, and I’m particularly interested in the Norse countries, which include Iceland.
The Sacrament follows a nun, Sister Johanna, in dual timelines – one in France and the other in Iceland. Sister Johanna, who speaks fluent Icelandic, is called to Iceland to investigate rumors of sexual abuse in the Catholic church. While she is investigating, there’s a mysterious death, and the investigation is closed. Twenty years later, she is called back to Iceland at the request of the now-grown boy who watched the death occur. The trip brings up a lot of painful memories for Sister Johanna, including her feelings for the Icelandic, female roommate she once had.
Although I wanted to love this book, I found it to be confusing. Due to the dual timelines, I had no idea which timelines the events were occurring in for much of the book. As this book was originally published in Iceland as Sakramentið, perhaps that’s a problem with the translation. It’s hard to be sure, but my biggest complaint about this book is that it was so confusing that I could barely enjoy the story.
The author’s stylistic choice of refraining from using quotation marks also added to the confusion. There are novels where that choice works, such as Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, but it most certainly did not work for The Sacrament.
This novel was also slow-paced, and I had to force myself to continue reading it. The story isn’t bad, I just think that it appeals to certain types of readers, myself not included.
One of the things I enjoyed about the book was the descriptions of Iceland and its people. Iceland isn’t an easy place to live, and Olafsson shows this to the reader through Sister Johanna’s observations.
The main topic tackled in this novel, sexual abuse in the Catholic Church, is a very important one, and Olafsson did a good job of illustrating how these kinds of abuses can easily be covered up.
There’s an underlying plot to The Sacrament, which is Sister Johanna’s secret love for an Icelandic roommate she had in Paris years ago. Since she believes that homosexuality is a sin, she ignores those feelings and joins the church as a nun. She never stops thinking about her old roommate, however, even searching for her in Iceland. I was intrigued by this subplot, but ultimately, it was incredibly unsatisfying. I can’t go into more detail due to spoilers, but the outcome of this subplot left me feeling annoyed and disappointed. Overall, this subplot added nothing to the story.
I really wanted to like this book, but in the end, the fact that the dual timelines were written in a way that made the story convoluted and confusing, along with the unsatisfying subplot, made this a book that I cannot recommend nor will I ever read again.