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the complete review - fiction
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- Danish title: Undtagelsen
- Translated by Anna Paterson
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B+ : fairly solid, drawn-out workplace thriller
See our review for fuller assessment.
A variety of small criticisms (especially re. length), but generally favourable
From the Reviews:
- "Mr Jungersen steadily cranks up the tension (.....) Although it may be too long, the plaudits are deserved. Mr Jungersen is good on the bizarre international "genocide industry" with its swish seminars, showpiece survivors and squabbling professors. His brisk style, well rendered in Anna Paterson's fine translation, generally keeps the story moving along." - The Economist
- "If it weren't for the eponymous exception, and the sense that the guilty hate their own evil, we would despair. Thanks to Christian Jungersen for that; and congratulations for making these fundamental questions into such a horribly vivid and fiendishly clever novel." - Carole Angier, The Independent
- "Although the action (if not the style) of this 500-page doorstop eventually picks up -- and ends with a devastating twist -- not a detail is left out along the way. (…) Perhaps Danes just have longer attention spans, but better pacing and turns of phrase might have gone a long way." - New York
- "The Exception is a novel of big ideas assembled with patient thoroughness. Moving between the vast historical landscape on which genocide occurs and the claustrophobic surroundings of the office, it suggests how little we know about our own natures. (…) While it is the task of a thriller’s hero to unmask and resist a villain, the very act of identifying evil is fraught with peril. Demonizing someone is a necessary first step to persecuting him. (…) By shifting points of view, the book is able to whip up your indignation about the cruelties inflicted by one character on another, then take you inside the perpetrator’s wounded soul so that you feel almost incapable of condemnation. All of the characters have deeply realized back stories, ambitions and pains. Even at their least sympathetic, they win our empathy. (...)
But most of all, one comes away feeling there is a hugely empathetic imagination behind this novel, one that resists allowing us to fall into the simplifying judgments that are a necessary prelude to cruelty." - Marcel Theroux, The New York Times Book Review
- "Jungersen is never very subtle about the parallels he sees between the center and the focus of its work. (…) I cannot think of anything quite like it. (…) Jungersen, who is forty-five, stakes out a path all his own on his way to revealing the secrets that these odd women harbor. (…) This icy and affecting novel, with its juxtaposition of people trying to do good and yet behaving very badly toward each other, can certainly be read in many ways, but always with the vague unease that the privileged residents of Western liberal democracies feel about their comfortable lives." - Jeffrey Frank, The New Yorker
- "If only the novel itself hadn't been so long and thus created rather inadvertently some of the overbearing tedium of an office setting. There's a rather brilliant book hiding here behind the flab of reiterated office back-and-forth. Readers who persevere will find the story picking up momentum about halfway through" - Alan Cheuse, San Francisco Chronicle
- "From the quiet, understated early chapters the story develops into a tense struggle for survival. A bestseller in the author's native Denmark, it is a powerful yet disquieting study of the psychology of evil, and a tense thriller." - Susanna Yager, The Telegraph
- "At 567 pages, this book is too flabby to function as a thriller, but its examination of jealousy and insecurity is admirably cynical and sharp." - Robert Colvile, The Telegraph
- "Christian Jungersen provides an excellent example of what we find admirable in Scandinavian crime writers. (…) The solution to the mystery seems both surprising and inevitable, as it should be in the best crime fiction. The Exception is an interesting novel with quite unexpected pace and a great deal to tell us about the psychological games we play with other people and with ourselves. The translation is so smooth and the translator so unobtrusive that it becomes hard to remember this novel was not written in English." - Natasha Cooper, Times Literary Supplement
Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers.
Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.
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The complete review's Review:
The Exception isn't your usual workplace thriller.
For one, the workplace is the Danish Center for Information on Genocide (DCIG), a small organisation that collects data about genocide and provides it to interested parties; "Over the years, the organization has accumulated Scandinavia's largest collection of books on the subject."
The office isn't very large -- which is one of the problems they have: much of their funding comes from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and there's the constant worry the government might find it would be better to merge operations with the larger Danish Institute for Human Rights.
From the beginning there are territorial claims to be staked out -- and this is all the more apparent on the smaller scale of the office itself.
Paul is the head of the centre, interested in keeping himself in the limelight by being the talking head of the DCIG.
There's also his secretary, Camilla, the librarian, Anne-Lise, information officer Iben, and project manager Malene.
Camilla and Anne-Lise are around forty, the other two women ten years younger.
Camilla is fairly quiet, while Anne-Lise -- a relative newcomer to the office -- has been relegated to the library, behind closed doors, cut off from the others.
Malene and Iben have long been close friends -- something they did not reveal when Iben applied for the position.
Anne-Lise isn't happy about being shunted aside so much, but the others seem to get along well enough -- but the group dynamics are thrown into high gear when several of the DCIG employees get threatening e-mails.
Obviously, there are war criminals who don't like what they're doing at the Centre -- a Yugoslavian one, in particular, sounds like a likely candidate -- but as a police officer tells the ladies:
You're obviously upset, but please remember that men like Zigic don't bother to e-mail their victims first before assassinating them.
Indeed, Malene and Iben begin to think that it's much more likely that it is Anne-Lise who was responsible.
There's already been considerable low-level psychological terror that they've inflicted on her, but now things get considerably worse.
The bullying is fairly crafty -- with (almost) reasonable explanations for almost everything they do, making for plausible deniability -- and successful, slowly driving Anne-Lise close to mad.
But at least she has a supportive husband.
Malene and Iben have their own issues: Malene is suffering from a slowly debilitating arthritis, while Iben doesn't have a man in her life.
They are friends, but there are only so many tests their friendship can withstand .....
The way Malene and Iben treat Anne-Lise mirrors much of what they are professionally occupied with: Jungersen includes some of Iben's essays on genocide and related matters, and the question of how 'normal' people can do such terrible things -- and then also return to 'normal' life -- is one she occupies herself with at length.
However, it takes her a very long time to realise that some of their actions towards Anne-Lise are similarly monstrous.
Matters are complicated by a variety of factors, including the constantly shifting group dynamics.
Quiet Camilla has a history of her own, including having been terribly bullied at school, and she also carries a much more significant secret.
And Malene, Iben, and Anne-Lise all cross lines in trying to get something on each other.
As one of the character's comes to recognise:
Other people shape who I am.
I can't make myself into who I want to be.
We all have it in us to be murderers and executioners and war criminals.
Indeed, as the dynamics at the office change, and different possible outcomes obviously favour some over others (professionally and privately), most everyone seems able to turn on most everyone else.
None, for example, ultimately believe in friendship, so suspicious that they suspect even those closest to them to be capable of terrible things (sometimes with good reason ...).
Jungersen has good fun describing the seething office scene, which is more like a schoolyard than a workplace.
Sometimes good work gets done there, but the tension is often very high -- and in shifting who is victim and who is acting out like a war criminal Jungersen keeps readers on their toes.
There is a violent death, and Jungersen keeps twisting the possibilities right to the very end: even when it comes to the climactic confrontation it's not clear that everything is what it seems, and where blame and responsibility lie.
Like with actual war crimes, sorting out the truth (and motivations) is difficult.
The Exception is an uneven thriller, with Jungersen particularly poor at setting up the 'thriller' elements: characters put themselves at risk (pretend they are someone they are not, break into a house, etc.)
and are saved by wild and unlikely coincidence far too often, for example.
The most violent confrontation comes about only because characters act in a ludicrous and unbelievable manner.
But by not making it straightforward, by allowing blame to get shifted from one person to the next throughout the course of the novel, Jungersen always keeps the reader just slightly off balance, and especially in how things go at the office itself that proves very effective.
The novel shifts perspective from one character to the next, long sections focussing first on one and then another.
Jungersen goes a bit overboard in what these women are all burdened with, laying it on pretty thick, and their feminine-hysteria (and pettiness and insecurity) isn't always entirely convincing.
(Astounding, too, is the amount of time they take off: every day someone seems to be running home early with a headache or calling in to say they'll be late, or just not showing up at all.
But maybe that's a Danish thing.)
There's also a lot of pop-psychology about essentially 'split'-personalities, which the women embrace far too readily as an explanation for why some of them have acted as they have.
Jungersen tries to do a great deal in the novel, and some of it is pretty clunky.
But in the variation, in the constant shift of all sense of good and evil, as well as in the meditations on what leads men (and women) to act in such horrible ways
The Exception manages to hold the reader's interest and attention.
Not entirely successful, and sometimes maddeningly airport-thriller-like (maddening because he doesn't handle those elements very capably), but ultimately worthwhile.
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Other books by Christian Jungersen under review:
Other books of interest under review:
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About the Author:
Danish author Christian Jungersen was born in 1962.
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© 2007-2014 the complete review
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