20 Books of Summer: The Sacrament by Ólafur Ólafsson

When it comes to finding great Icelandic fiction I haven’t had much luck. Neither Bergsveinn Birgisson’s short epistolary novel Reply to a Letter from Helga or Kristín Ómarsdóttir’s rather odd Children in Reindeer Woods did it for me. This is a shame because I’ve been told despite the island nation’s small population, Iceland publishes more books per capita than any nation on earth. So I imagine, with odds like that sooner or later I’d stumble across something by an Icelandic author I’d like.

During one of my weekend visits to the public library I recently discovered the fiction of Ólafur Ólafsson. According to his bio, he was born in Iceland but later moved to the United States to attend college at Brandeis University. After graduation he landed a job with Sony, and within six years was promoted to CEO of its computer division. During his tenure he was instrumental in the creation and launch of Sony’s highly successful PlayStation gaming console. Forced out for feuding with company bigwigs he went on to pursue a series of high-level corporate gigs ending with a stint at Time-Warner.

As accomplished as Ólafsson might be he’s also a writer. The author of eight novels, several of them critically acclaimed “editor’s picks” on Amazon. At first I was going to read his 2017 novel One Station Away but quickly opted to read his 2019 offering The Sacrament since most if, not all of it is set in Iceland. Employing a nonlinear style to erode the boundary between past and present Ólafsson’s storytelling unfolds gradually and with purpose, faithfully delivering us to the novel’s final destination.

Thanks to her near fluency in Icelandic, French nun Sister Johanna Marie has been tasked by the Vatican to investigate secret allegations of misconduct at a Catholic school in Iceland. Sadly, over the course of her visit as she’s repeatedly stonewalled and frustrated by uncooperative witnesses. Fearing her investigation was purposely designed to fail, it begins to look like the makings of a cover-up. The deeper her investigation goes Sister Johanna Marie realizes no matter how horrible the original allegations might be, ultimately it’s the abuse of power that poses the greatest threat to Iceland’s faithful.

In addition to conducting her investigation, she’s also forced to wrestle with the ghosts of her past. As a young theology student in Paris she experienced the early stirrings of romantic affection for her Icelandic roommate. With perhaps mutual fondness, young Halla tutored her in Iceland’s language and culture. But in the eyes of the Church such love could never come to fruition.  Motivated more likely out of spite than by puritanical morality, her parish priest Father Raffin terminated the relationship’s promising trajectory. Sister Johanna Marie now finds herself conducting an official investigation the homeland of her old flame, sent there by that very same priest.

While I don’t think The Sacrament will make my year-end list of Favorite Fiction, it’s light years ahead of Reply to a Letter from Helga and Children in Reindeer Woods. That easily makes it the best Icelandic novel I’ve ever read.

4 thoughts on “20 Books of Summer: The Sacrament by Ólafur Ólafsson

  1. I have never read anything Icelandic though I’ve heard about how the entire country gives books to one another on Christmas Eve and they all read. What a wonderful tradition!


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