The Sacrament is an appropriate title for a story as self-sacrificing and chilly as the wintry terrains of Iceland in which it is set. Sister Johanna Marie spends her time at a Convent in Lauds attending to her rose garden. Johanna has discovered that the path to truth lies amid the long winding passageways of the soul. Lately, she's been plagued by a dream, a body landing on the turf of snowy ground which inexplicably transforms into the image of her old school principal, Father August Frans: "All I could see was the snow surrounding the dark church, the schoolhouse next to it, the body on the ground."
Johanna receives a handwritten letter regarding a missive to be discussed in person. She contemplates Cardinal Raffin's "silver tongue, his elegant handwriting. His words that hang in the air," telling herself that he no longer holds any power over her. Raffin hands Johanna the letter, and "the mere mention of the word 'Icelandic' knocked me sideways. My heart started to hammer in my chest" as Johanna recalls Unnar Gretarsson.
Time plays tricks on Johanna's mind and her memories are capricious. Throughout the early sections, Olafsson plunges us into Johanna's difficult upbringing. God did not loom large in her childhood home. Born during the last days of the war in a small village near Lyon, Johanna's family were not keen churchgoers; the Bible was only brought out on religious holidays. There was a passive prejudice, a long-simmering discomfort around the issue of sexuality. Johanna confesses that it took her a long time to realize that she was different from other girls.
Though the later scenes are in Reykjavik, the focus is on the mystery of what really happened to Father August Frans. Was it suicide, or was it murder? Olafsson delicately blends Johanna's haunted thoughts as she's forced to confront her past, the gorgeous summers in 1965 when she first arrived in Paris to take up her place at the Sorbonne. The image is one of hope and love, tolerance and forgiveness, beauty and temperance.
Halla appears to Johanna as a vision of joy, "of beauty incarnate." Her offer to teach Johanna Icelandic becomes prophetic after Johanna is tasked with travelling to Iceland to follow the report, the 18 typewritten pages that will eventually reveal Father August Fran's long-buried secrets, how "he had silenced the boys and their parents, just as he had the church bells." There has to be an explanation hidden somewhere, no matter how confusing and ambiguous. In a "pull-off" outside a small town in Iceland, Johanna discovers that her entire life has been cruelly built upon a misunderstanding.
Where does friendship end and recklessness begin? Are our duties toward our brothers and sisters or toward our own conscience? Olafsson imbues Johanna with an unassailable humanity. Her dilemma is that she ends up no longer sure of herself. This is when Johanna starts to doubt the truth of the letter that has set everything in motion. While the mystery anchors the novel, the focus is Johanna's inner life. This complicated, devout and sometimes overly-passive woman aches to choose happiness over the protocols of her time.