The Exception

Four women — Iben, Malene, the librarian Anne-Lise, and the secretary Camilla — work at the Danish Centre for Genocide Information. All day long, they work on disseminating facts and analysis about the world’s horrors, from the Holocaust to Rwanda to Serbia to hundreds of other, lesser-known genocides. Of course there are frictions between the co-workers, but mostly they are quite friendly. Or are they? When one of the women, and then another, receive an anonymous death threat, the internal pressures reveal frightening truths about the women’s motives, personalities, and histories.

Jenny: This novel really surprised me, and kept on surprising me right to the end. I think that was partly a function of its structure, which moved from one point of view to another, and interspersed first-person perspectives with factual reports on the psychology of evil, and partly a function of its constant revelations about the personality and history of the women involved. It reminded me that with human beings, there is always more to know. I love that feeling.

Teresa: I agree about all the surprises. You could never be entirely sure what was going on and whether characters were reliable. The thing that I found most fascinating about the book, however, was the bright light it shone on the modern-day workplace and the way workplace tensions can affect your whole outlook on life. Office life is such a weird thing. You spend all day with a group of people, often in very close quarters, whom you wouldn’t necessarily ever choose to spend time with on your own. In such an environment, even trivial issues, like Anne-Lise’s feeling of being left out of the group because she works in a different room, can become huge. But to bring up such an issue seems petty, especially when, as these women had every reason to understand, there are much bigger and more serious concerns to worry about in the world.

The interplay between the characters’ cruelties toward each other and their work against genocide gave me a lot to think about. Workplace bullying and genocide both come from the dark side of human nature. But does that create a moral equivalence? I don’t think so, but the dynamics between these characters show that there can be a fine line between what feels like harmless teasing and outright nastiness. And what drives people to engage in either? And what are the consequences? Genocide can destroy a community, but bullying can tear apart a single life.

Jenny: Jungersen raised a lot of those questions and played with them. It takes a lot of apparently normal human beings to participate in a genocide, so a lot of people — maybe everyone — must have cruelty and even murder in them somewhere. Are murderers “the exception,” or do we have to think of good, moral people as the exception? How do we discover those tendencies in ourselves and others, and stop them before they start?

But I’m making this sound like a horribly depressing book. Despite the bullying, the workplace pressures, and the information on genocide and evil, I found the book suspenseful and insightful rather than depressing. It was so much about perception. How do we see and interpret our own actions and those of others? We’re always thinking the best of ourselves, and other people tend to fit into our preconceived notions of them.

Teresa: So much of the suspense was built on people’s perceptions. Once a character decided that another person was cold or fake or whatever, that’s all they could see. Anne-Lise decided Malene was cruel and childish, so all Malene’s actions looked intentionally mean, whether they were or not. And Anne-Lise’s perceptions affect how she acts, leading her co-workers to see her as petty and maybe even unbalanced. Most of the time, too, I could see where the characters were coming from in their thoughts about each other. I had my sympathies, but I was never quite sure who was right or wrong.

There were some aspects of the book I had mixed feelings about. The early introduction of split personalities seemed ridiculous, although Jungersen made good use of the idea later, as characters began to doubt themselves. And the excerpts of Iben’s writing, while interesting, made the ideas behind the novel too obvious and literal. I could have done with less of that.

Jenny: I’m interested that you say that, because I found those excerpts fascinating as a device. At first, I read through them with only general interest, and then I thought of them as examples of the stress all four women were under as they worked at the Institute, and then, of course, later, I began to wonder if the articles had ever been real at all, whether the examples of genocide and torture were only drawn in self-interest, and whether the psychology of evil was really only the psychology of one person. (I thought the same thing about Mirko Zigic. Was he ever real?)

I think the thing I liked most about the book was the way it kept on revealing more and more about each character as it went on. Even in the last few pages of the story, I got the feeling that the book could go on showing us more backstory, more little scandals, more surprises, because that’s human nature: not necessarily evil, but full of folds and secrets, and liable to turn up the oddest things under pressure.

Teresa: For me, the excerpts worked only up to a point. It hadn’t occurred to me, however, that they might not even be true. I’ll have to think about that. I do agree about the book’s wonderfully twisty quality, the way each corner turned revealed more corners ahead. It really got at the complex and muddy nature of human motivation. The ending might be a twist too far for some readers—I haven’t made up my mind for myself—but overall the layers and folds made this a very satisfying book.

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6 Responses to The Exception

  1. Jenny says:

    I’m glad y’all (mostly) liked this! I read it a while ago and surprised myself by how much I liked it — it scared the hell out of me, which was not what I’d intended when I picked it up, but I do like being scared by books now and then. The suspense was great and the workplace scenes were pitch-perfect.

    • Jenny says:

      I was surprised, too, both by how much I liked it and by the book itself. And yes, I thought it was very scary — the whole psychology of evil thing gets me every time, with the idea that anyone can do these things under the right circumstances. I thought Jungersen really kept us guessing. My own workplace is thankfully not like this at all (neither in tone nor in structure) and so that wasn’t quite the same for me, but of course I have many friends who work in places like this, so it felt familiar.

  2. cbjamess says:

    I loved this book! I don’t know how I came across it, but it took me by surprise. It really went down roads I didn’t expect it to go down and built up a lot of suspense over what should have been trivial things. Just how excited should we be about who gets what room? I think it deserves a much larger audience than it got.

    • Jenny says:

      Surprise seems to be the theme here! I thought it was exactly that, surprising and suspenseful, as well as insightful about human nature. I think it actually did get quite a large audience in Europe — it was a bestseller there.

  3. Heather says:

    I hadn’t heard of this one but now I REALLY want to read it. This was a great review, and I love how you two read and reviewed it together. It sounds extremely interesting, thanks for bringing it to my attention!

  4. Christy says:

    A number of things sound great about this book, but I think what has most piqued my interest is what Teresa says about “the bright light it shone on the modern-day workplace and the way workplace tensions can affect your whole outlook on life.” I actually have a pretty good workplace environment but it has its moments sometimes when you realize how much your coworkers are part of your life.

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