By Christian Jungersen
(Nan A. Talese, Hardcover, 9780385516297, 512pp.)
Publication Date: July 10, 2007
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A bestseller throughout Europe, THE EXCEPTION is a gripping dissection of the nature of evil and of the paranoia and obsessions that drive ordinary people to commit unthinkable acts.
Four women work together for a small nonprofit in Copenhagen that disseminates information on genocide. When two of them receive death threats, they immediately believe that they are being stalked by Mirko Zigic, a Serbian torturer and war criminal, whom they have recently profiled in their articles.
As the tensions mount among the women, their suspicions turn away from Zigic and toward each other. The threats increase and soon the office becomes a battlefield in which each of the women’s move is suspect. Their obsession turns into a witch hunt as they resort to bullying and victimization.
Yet these are people who daily analyze cases of appalling cruelty on a worldwide scale, and who are intimate with the psychology of evil. The cruelty which the women have described from a safe distance is now revealed in their own world. They discover that none of them is exactly the person she seems to be. And then they learn that Interpol has traced Mirko Zigic to Denmark.
THE EXCEPTION is a unique and intelligent thriller, heralding Christian Jungersen as a gifted storyteller and keen observer of the human psyche.
CHRISTIAN JUNGERSEN’s novel Thickets won the Best First Novel award in Denmark. THE EXCEPTION, his second novel, won Denmark’s prestigious Golden Laurels prize and is Jungersen’s English language debut. Born in Copenhagen, he now divides his time between Dublin, Ireland and New York City.
From The New York Times Book Review
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.
In an archetypal thriller plot, an ordinary person falls foul of a ruthless and resourceful villain. However sophisticated the story’s construction, however morally ambiguous the hero may seem, the battle lines will finally be drawn up for a showdown: good versus evil. A villainous antagonist – a cunning madman, a fanatical spymaster, a megalomaniacal tycoon, a psychopathic ex-lover – is as indispensable to the genre as ice cream is to a sundae. Great villains haunt us because they have something memorably extra: the suave braininess of Hannibal Lecter, Iago’s mysterious and energetic malice, Mrs. Danvers’s hostility and chilly obedience. But in the end they are all villains, and confirm our sense that evil is aberrant, threatening and elsewhere.
The Exception has a more chilling take on villainy, rooted in the author’s research on mass killings. Jungersen shows that “villain” and “hero” are unstable and loaded terms. 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. After all, it is precisely this kind of defamation that precedes genocide. The vilest instances of human cruelty are inevitably justified by their perpetrators as acts of self-defense.
Translated from the Danish by Anna Paterson into 500 pages of spare and unflashy prose, “The Exception” cycles through the viewpoints of its main characters as they attempt to trace the sender of the e-mail messages. They are Iben, an ambitious 20-something intellectual who has just returned from being held briefly hostage in Africa; Malene, her best friend from college, who is both irresistible to men and crippled by a form of severe early-onset arthritis; Anne-Lise, the librarian and office misfit; Camilla, the secretary; and Paul, the center’s vain and ineffectual leader.
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.
The Exception is excellent on so many things: the texture of office life, the appalling inconsistencies and lacunas in our perceptions of our own characters, the way intelligent people use the insights of psychology not to deepen their self-awareness but to calumniate one another with more sophisticated accusations. 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. Its characters seem deeply true to life in that they are not unitary, but a web of fluctuating motivations that combine good intentions, self-deception, generosity, selfishness and malice.
The Exception contains rich and contradictory accounts of what evil is and inevitably raises questions it never fully answers. Does evil lurk equally in everyone, or are some people driven to exceptional acts by their own twisted natures? Isn’t there a profound qualitative difference between even the nastiest office politics and the epic degradations of Omarska? And if, as the book suggests, we contain dark potentialities unknown to us, to what extent can we be held responsible for them?
This is a work of fiction, not a philosophical treatise. And by the end, The Exception manages to cash its check to the reader in full, doing so in a way that is thoroughly consistent with its bleak and sophisticated view of human nature.
-- Marcel Theroux’s most recent novel is “A Blow to the Heart.
From The New Yorker
The last century produced an enormous trove of literature about mass murder, no doubt because there was so much of it. Novelists, historians, and psychologists are still fascinated by the conduct of average people who were able to kill their neighbors by day and, a few hours later, join their families for a cozy meal, as if nothing unusual had just happened. The Danish novelist Christian Jungersen approaches this subject by setting The Exception in an office where the chief occupation is to study these crimes–a place where the employees, in a manner of speaking, torture one another.
Offices are ideal laboratories for examining how people get along. Flirtations, camaraderie, and silliness are found alongside paranoia, deviousness, and hostility. People of various ages, experiences, prejudices, and talents are stuck together, whether in a goofy redoubt for charming losers (as with the television series “The Office”) or an environment for conniving strivers (Trollope’s “The Three Clerks”). Jungersen, in the five hundred pages of his strange, occasionally hectoring, and unfailingly compelling book, turns his office of choice into a discomfiting reflection of the world just outside its doors.
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.
-- by Jeffrey Frank
Minneapolis Star Tribune
Aside from being a suspenseful page-turner, The Exception challenges our complacency and self-regard at every turn.
Deseret Morning News
The Exception is a brilliant study of conflict in the workplace, masterfully written.
Cleveland Plain Dealer
Jungersen's sharp, disturbing book reminds us that evil is everywhere, and while you can track it down, you can't stamp it out. Especially if it lives within you.
Starred Review. This eerie novel by Jungersen is so uncomfortably real for anyone that has worked in a small office that it is almost painful to keep reading. Yet it is also impossible to put this thriller down. Jungersen has written a narrative of such verisimilitude and ambiguity that one can believe in the inevitability of viciousness in everyone. His masterly examination of the everyday impulse toward evil and the psychology of women in closed situations makes this a winner.
Jungersen builds his drama carefully. . . his sharp, disturbing book reminds us that evil is everywhere, and while you can track it down, you can’t stamp it out. Especially if it lives within you.
International Herald Tribune
The Exception is excellent on so many things: the texture of office life, the appalling inconsistencies and lacunas in our perceptions of our own characters, the way intelligent people use the insights of psychology not to deepen their self-awareness but to calumniate one another with more sophisticated accusations. . . One comes away feeling there is a hugely empathetic imagination behind this novel.
Philadelphia City Paper
The Exception is as wonderfully creepy and suspenseful as it is nutritious.
Starred Review. A complex understanding of people turns [The Exception] into fuel for a sometimes cruel but always intense page-turner.
Jungersen's research into the psychology of evil is impressive and well-integrated, and The Exception is certainly gripping, leaving one guessing right to the spooky, satisfying end.
Christian Science Monitor
Part psychological thriller, part a female version of “In the Company of Men,” The Exception brilliantly probes the self-justifications and callousness that allow evil a foothold in civilized societies. Grade: A
A brilliant mix of thriller and philosophical drama.