Review: The Exception by Christian Jungersen

Four women work at the Danish Centre for Genocide Information. Iben and Malene are old friends from University who are now project officers at the Centre, Camilla is secretary to the Centre’s Director and Anna-Lise, the newest member of staff, is the librarian. Iben and Malene receive death threats via email and attempt to work out whether the source of the threats was one of the war criminals they have written about as part of their work or someone within their own office. Chapters told from each of the women’s point of view build up a picture of how psychological stress impacts on a fairly closed micro-environment.

This turned out to be one of those books that, for several reasons, sounded like a better idea than it turned out to be in reality. For a start I have a vague uneasiness about books in which all the female characters are portrayed with varying degrees of mental instability, especially when the book is authored by a bloke. Although I don’t really think that in this instance anything sinister is meant by the depictions, it wasn’t that many years ago when ‘all women are crazy’ was considered a legitimate medical opinion (I read loads of such sentiments in my days as an archivist). A good deal of the behaviour depicted here would have had misogynists everywhere nodding sagely and murmuring about women staying at home where they belong. So while the psychological breakdown of each character was well done I would have preferred that at least one of the women had turned out not to be a sex-obsessed, blithering mess (or worse).

Also, as is often the case these days I thought the book was too long. At many points in the story a load of detail about some minor tangent was incorporated and even though some of these were interesting most did nothing to progress the story. At 300-350 pages and minus trivia about who sat next to whom at a conference and how many meals of frozen cod were microwaved I would have found the book far more suspenseful.

I read a good deal of translated fiction and normally don’t notice it except to marvel at a skill I could never hope to achieve. However in this instance I found the language to be rather formal. I know we Aussies have a tendency towards laziness with our particular adaptation of the lingo but I don’t know of any place where English is the primary language that would talk of someone ‘fixing herself a portion of cereal’ for example. It felt to me as if the book had been translated into a sort of dictionary version of the language that no one actually speaks and this gave it a quite unnatural quality.

Finally there was my all too familiar disappointment with the ending. Even allowing for the slightly fantastical element provided by a psychological melt down the ending wasn’t in keeping with the rest of the book. A fairly standard thriller-ish conclusion was bolted on to three quarters of a psychological suspense novel in a way that didn’t suit either style and I found this quite unsatisfying. It did keep me guessing though so I have to give some marks for that.

The structure of the book, which included several articles supposedly written by Iben about the psychology of evil in addition to the different points of view, worked surprisingly well and I was both fascinated and horrified by the parts of the book that dealt with all the genocides in our planet’s history. However this made me more tempted to seek out some non-fiction about yet another subject I appear to be woefully ignorant of rather than keen to read another book by this author.

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As is often the case my opinion is a minority one because the book was shortlisted for the International Dagger in 2007. A review at Euro Crime provides an alternative viewpoint on the merits of The Exception.

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My rating 3/5

Translator: Anna Paterson; Publisher: Weidenfeld & Nicolson [2006]; ISBN: 9780297852513; Length 487 pages; Setting: Denmark, present-day.

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7 Responses to Review: The Exception by Christian Jungersen

  1. Maxine says:

    I understand where you are coming from in your review. I enjoyed this book more than you did, though I agree with you that the ending did not really work. On the women – I think that the male boss was utterly ghastly, and presumed that this was intentional on the part of the author 😉 Also, I think that the attitude portrayed in the book, of this environmental-political-socio heavyweightness, is quite common in some areas of Europe – well, I’ve seen a lot of it in Germany, where I once lived for a while, and some in the UK in the more “alternative” areas. It is all so darn serious, and so disapproving of the rest of us.

    I liked the book for its claustrophobia and for its shifting perspective – you never quite knew who was imagining things and who really was a bit nutty.


  2. bernadetteinoz says:

    You’re right Maxine the male boss was perfectly horrid which is part of the reason I didn’t think the author was deliberately supporting the ‘women are barking mad’ line of thought. But I kept thinking of all the people who would miss that subtle point in their glee to find yet more evidence that their long held opinion about the sanity of the female species was proven 🙂 Perhaps because we are in election mode here I am particularly attuned to spin and all its evilness right now that I saw something that wasn’t there.


  3. Maxine says:

    I just checked your review list and The Reunion by Simone van der Vlugt isn’t on it- maybe it is not yet available in Australia but it is in some ways addressing similar themes – but is not by any means only on the office politics theme. It is a much more personal story and less of a dynamic/political novel, and more lightly written. I think you’d enjoy it, I certainly did. I’ve reviewed it at Petrona and it was the review at It’s A Crime (Crime fiction reader) that made me want to read it.


  4. bernadetteinoz says:

    The Reunion is already on my wishlist Maxine as it does sound like something I would like.


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