A nun with a past investigates church abuse in Olaf Olafsson’s chilly ‘The Sacrament’

“The Sacrament,” by Olaf Olafsson.

Olaf Olafsson’s chilly mystery, “The Sacrament” (Ecco, 304 pp., ★★½ out of four stars), is built around a reliably intriguing character type: The nun with a past. For years, Sister Johanna has been calmly puttering about a convent in rural France, minding her rose garden and caring for her dog. Two decades earlier she was sent to Iceland to investigate a church scandal there, but that drama has been tucked away forever.

Or, of course, not. Now, one of the children involved in the scandal has written a bishop claiming to have new information to share, and Johanna is dispatched once again to investigate. If a mild-mannered nun seems like a lousy gumshoe, that’s exactly the point: She’s scandal-struck, too, and pliable for a church that wants to keep things quiet. More than 40 years earlier, while she was studying theology at the Sorbonne, she developed an intimate friendship with Halla, female student from Iceland. While their transgressions rarely strayed beyond sneaking listens to Beatles LPs, church leaders saw a clear and sinful danger.

More:Blue foxes, biotechnic ghosts: Jeff VanderMeer’s ‘Dead Astronauts’ is a deeply weird book

What do you do with a problem like Johanna? First, intimidate her for her inappropriate longings: “We all have our demons, and you better than anyone know that you must rid yourself of yours,” a priest intones. Then, dispatch her to Iceland to report on accusations about the Icelandic priest, knowing a scared nun won’t raise a fuss. (Olafsson needlessly delays clarifying the nature of the accusations. Given the context – priests, children – they’re exactly what you’d expect.)

The Iceland-born Olafsson is an experienced storyteller who’s written five prior novels, and this one runs smoothly on three tracks: Johanna’s youthful friendship with Halla; her first trip to Iceland, which we learn early culminated in an accused priest falling to his death from a bell tower; and Johanna’s return, which addresses the loose ends. He borrows a bit of the dark, ironic style of much of Scandinavian crime fiction, especially during Johanna’s first trip to Iceland, when she’s guided through the country in a balky, unreliable car nicknamed (symbolism alert!) Jesus.

Author Olaf Olafsson.

But while the setup promises an atmospheric exploration of sexuality, identity and truth in a religious context, “The Sacrament” stalls nearly as often as that car does. Just as details of the school scandal are delayed, so are details about Johanna’s private life, which are doled out slowly and don’t add much substance to her character. (A few too many scenes feature Johanna figuring out her phone so she can check on her dog.) The Icelandic landscape is rarely more than sketched. Though Olafsson writes brisk chapters with tight sentences, they often lack in forward movement. 

That is, until the requisite explosive revelation in the final pages. But because Johanna’s has been so lightly drawn, the moment’s impact is blunted. Johanna’s guide in Iceland shares a common saying in the country: “When three people know the whole nation knows.” It’s an evocative phrase in a novel where everybody is trying to keep secrets under wraps. The truth will out, Olafsson means to say. But he takes a long time to say it.

Leave a Reply