Building his plot around the issue of child abuse by Catholic clergy, Olafsson (One Station Away, 2017, etc.) explores complex issues of morality and, to quote Corinthians, “faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love.”
Locked in a broom closet as punishment for a minor offense, Icelandic Catholic schoolboy Unnar witnesses Father August Frans fall from a bell tower to his death in 1987. French nun Sister Johanna Marie is in Reykjavik at the time investigating anonymous charges of abuse against August Frans. Thirty years later she revisits the city because Unnar has written saying he has more information to give her concerning what he saw. Olafsson’s portrait of his homeland is almost as vivid as his portrayal of narrator Sister Johanna Marie, whose measured, melancholy voice expresses great internal ferocity. Traveling back to Reykjavik, the now aged nun reconsiders her 1987 investigation as well as her life in Paris during the 1960s, both times of emotional stress. As a repressed Sorbonne student named Pauline, she fell deeply in love with her Icelandic roommate, Halla, drawn to Halla’s capacity for joy (and love of the Beatles). Although Pauline never expressed her passion, Father Raffin, an observant young priest, shamed her into cutting off communication with Halla. Pauline became a nun out of “despair,” hoping to “find freedom in faith.” As a rising star at the Vatican in the 1980s ambitious, morally ambiguous Raffin, whose “ability to speak to people as if he were standing in their shoes, and yet at the same time superior” represents the church's power over its congregants, deliberately sent Johanna Marie to Halla’s home, Iceland. Her task proved impossible: Despite evidence of harmed children, a wall of silence encircled August Frans—Olafsson implicates church authorities without becoming polemical—forcing the nun into enormous, life-altering choices, including whether to seek Halla. Now returning to Iceland, again at Raffin’s order, Johanna Marie faces distressing truths yet finds something like peace.
Emotionally gratifying and spiritually challenging—a compelling novel that grabs the reader’s psyche and won’t let go.