The Exception

The Exception

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Overview

An internationally bestselling thriller, The Exception dissects the nature of evil and the paranoia that drives 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, the Serbian torturer and war criminal they recently profiled in their articles. Yet as 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.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780297852353
Publisher: Gardners Books
Publication date: 08/10/2006

About the Author

Christian Jungersen's first novel Thickets won the Best First Novel award in Denmark in 1999 and also became a bestseller; The Exception is his second novel, his first to be translated into English. He has recently taken up residence in Dublin, Ireland but returns frequently to Copenhagen.

Read an Excerpt

Chapter 1


“Don’t they ever think about anything except killing each other?” Roberto asks. Normally he would never say such a harsh thing.

The truck with the four aid workers and two of the hostage takers on the tailgate has been stopped for an hour or more. Burned–out cars block the road ahead, but it ought to be possible to reverse and outflank them by driving right through the flimsy small shacks.

“I mean, what are we waiting for? Why don’t they just drive on through the crowd?”

Roberto’s English accent is usually perfect, but now, for the first time, you can hear that he is Italian. He is struggling for breath. Sweat pours down his cheeks and into the corners of his mouth.

The slum surrounds them. It smells and looks like a filthy cattle pen. The car stands on a mud surface, still ridged with tracks made after the last rains, now baked as hard as stoneware by the sun. The Nubians have constructed their grayish brown huts from a framework of torn-off branches spread with cow dung. Dense clusters of huts are scattered all over the dusty plain.

Roberto, Iben’s immediate boss, looks at his fellow hostages. “Why can’t they at least pull over into the shade?” He falls silent and lifts his hand very slowly toward the lower rim of his sunglasses.

One of the hostage takers turns his head away from watching the locals to stare at Roberto and shakes his sharpened, one–and–a–half–foot–long panga. It is enough to make Roberto lower his arm with the same measured slowness.

Iben sighs. Drops of sweat have collected in her ears and everything sounds muffled, a bit like the whirring of a fan.

Garbage, mostly rotting green items mixed with human excrement, has piled up against the wall of a nearby cow dung hut. The sloping three–foot–high mound gives off the unmistakable stench of the slum.

“O glorious Name of Jesus, gracious Name,” the youngest of their captors intones. “Name of love and power! Through You, sins are forgiven, enemies are vanquished, the sick…”

Iben looks up at him. He is very different from the child soldiers she wrote about back home in Copenhagen. It’s easy to spot that he is new to all this and caving in under the pressure. Until now he’s been high on some junk, but he’s coming down and terror is tearing him apart. He stands there, his eyes fixed on the sea of people that surrounds the car just a short distance away; a crowd that is growing and becoming better armed with every passing minute.

Tears are running down the boy’s cheeks. He clutches his scratched black machine gun with one hand while his other hand rubs the cross that hangs from a chain around his neck outside his red and blue I LOVE HONG KONG T–shirt.

The boy must have been a member of an English–language church, because he has stopped using his native Dhuluo and instead is babbling in English, prayers and long quotes from the Bible, in solemn tones, as if he were reading a Latin mass:

“Surely goodness and mercy will follow me all the days of my life. And I will dwell in the house of the Lord for the length of all my days…”


***

It’s autumn back home in Copenhagen, but apart from the season changing, everything has stayed the same. People’s homes look the way they always did. Iben’s friends wear their usual clothes and talk about the same things.

Iben has started work again. Three months have passed since she and the others were taken hostage and held prisoner in a small African hut somewhere near Nairobi. She remembers how important home had seemed to all of them. She remembers the diarrhea, the armed guards, the heat, and the fear that dominated their lives.

Now a voice inside her insists that it was not true, not real. Her experiences in Kenya resist being made part of her quiet, orderly life at home. She can’t be that woman lying on the mud floor with a machine–gun nozzle pressed to her temple. She remembers it in a haze, as if it were a scene in some experimental film seen long ago.

This evening Iben has come to see Malene. They are planning to go to a party later, given by an old friend from their university days.

Iben mixes them a large mojito each. She waits for her best friend to pick something to wear. Another track of the Afro funk CD with Fela Kuti starts up. After one more swallow, she can see the bottom of her glass.

Malene emerges to look at herself in the mirror. “Why do I always seem to end up wearing something more boring than all the outfits I've tried on at home?”

She scrutinizes herself in a black, almost see–through dress, which would have been right for New Year’s Eve but is wrong for a Friday–night get–together hosted by a woman who lives in thick sweaters.

“I guess we just go to boring parties.”

Malene is already on her way back to the bedroom to find something less flashy.

Iben calls out after her: “And you can bet tonight will be really dull. At…Sophie’s!” She pauses, as if the mere mention of Sophie’s name says it all, and hears Malene adopt a silly voice: “Oh, yes…at Sophie’s.”

They both laugh.

Iben sips her drink while she looks over the bookshelves as she has done so many times before. When she arrives somewhere new she always likes to check out the books as soon as she can. At parties she discreetly scans the titles and authors’ names, filtering out the music and distant chatter.

She pulls out a heavy volume, a collection of anthropological articles. Clutching it in her arms, she sways in time to one of the slower tracks. Her drink is strong enough to create a blissfully ticklish sensation.

She holds her cold glass, presses it against her chest, and gently waltzes with the book while she reads about the initiation ritual to adulthood for Xingu Indian girls. They are made to stay in windowless huts, sometimes for as long as three years, and emerge into the sunlight plump and pale, with volumes of long, brittle hair. Only then does the tribe accept them as true women.

Also on the bookshelf is the tape that Malene’s partner, Rasmus, recorded of the television programs on which Iben appeared when she returned from Kenya. It sits there on the shelf in front of her.

Nibbling on a cracker, she puts the tape into the machine and presses Play without bothering to turn down the music. As the images emerge on the screen, she takes a seat.

Now and then she laughs as she observes the small puppet-Iben, sitting there in front of the cameras of TV2 News and TV Report, pretending to be so wise and serious as she explains how the Danish Center for Information on Genocide, where she works as an information officer, lent her to an aid organization based in Kenya. There is a short sequence filmed in a Nairobi slum before the camera records the arrival of the freed hostages at the American embassy for their first press conference. She studies these images. Every time she sees them, they seem just as fresh and unfamiliar.

Malene comes back, trailing a faint scent of perfume and wearing a gauzy chocolate–colored dress. Dresses suit her. It’s easy to understand what men see in her. With her thick chestnut hair and lightly tanned skin, she looks positively appetizing, like a great smooth, glowing sweet.

Malene realizes at once which tape Iben is watching and gives her friend a little hug before sitting down next to her on the sofa.

Iben turns down the music. Roberto, still in Nairobi, is addressing a journalist: “In captivity it was Iben who kept telling us that we must talk to each other about what was happening, repeating the words over and over until they were devoid of meaning, or as near as we possibly…”

He smiles, but looks worn. They were all examined by doctors and psychologists, but Roberto took longer than anyone else before he was ready to go home.

“Iben explained that there were a lot of studies demonstrating how beneficial this could be in preventing post–traumatic stress…”

TV Report cuts to Iben speaking in a Copenhagen studio. “If you want to prevent post–traumatic stress disorder, it’s crucial to start debriefing as soon as possible. We had no idea how long we were going to be held. It could have been months, which was why it was a good idea to start trying to structure our responses to what we were experiencing during captivity…”

Safe in Malene’s apartment, Iben groans and reaches for her drink. “I come across as…totally unbearable.”

“You’re not the tiniest bit unbearable. The point is, you knew about this and most people don’t.”

“But it’s just the kind of stuff that journalists are always after. I sound like such a psychology nerd…as if I had no feelings.”

Malene puts down her drink, smiles, and touches Iben's hand. “Couldn’t it be that they were simply fascinated by the way you managed to stay in control inside that little cow dung hideout? You were heroic. No one knows what goes on inside the mind of a hero, and you certainly weren’t used to being one.”

Iben can’t think of anything to say. They laugh.

Iben nods at Malene’s dress. “You know that you can’t turn up at Sophie’s in that.”

“Of course I do.”

The next recordings are Iben's appearances on Good Morning, Denmark and Deadline. On screen she looks like somebody quite different from the old stay–at–home Iben. Normally her shoulder–length blond hair is thick but without the sheen that the sun brings out in most blondes. The African light, however, has been strong enough to bleach her hair. Since then, she has had her hairdresser add highlights to maintain her sun-drenched appearance.

She had also wanted to hang on to her tan, which, in the interviews, was almost as good as Malene’s. And she felt that the usual rings under her eyes were too visible for someone not yet thirty, so she had followed Malene’s lead. She went off to a tanning salon, but it didn't take her long to realize that frying inside a noisy machine was not for her. Now her skin is so pale and transparent that the half–moon shadows under both eyes look violet.

At the time, her story suited the news media down to the ground. Whatever Iben said was edited until it fitted in with the narrative they were after: an idealistic young Danish woman confronting the big, bad world outside and proving herself a heroine. She was the only one who had managed to escape from the hostage takers. Afterward she had left her safe hiding place to run back to the captives in an attempt to make the brutal policemen change sides in the middle of a brawl.

The papers loved quoting the other hostages when they described Iben as “the strongest member of the group.” A tabloid phoned one of them and didn’t leave him alone until he admitted that “without Iben the outcome might well have been less fortunate.” The media chased the story for a week and then totally lost interest. The group’s captivity had lasted just four days, which meant that Iben didn’t rank among seriously famous hostages. By now, the journalists have forgotten her.

Iben realizes that Malene is trying to sneak a look at her face to find out if something’s the matter.

“Malene, I’m fine. Why don’t you go and change?”

“Are you positive?”

“Yes. Sure.”

Malene and Rasmus’s apartment is in a state of transition. Draped over the backs of two cheap IKEA folding chairs are Indian throws from a fair trade shop. Like the cheap Polynesian figurines on the pine shelves, the blankets are reminders of the time when Malene was studying international development at university. Three years have passed since Malene received her graduate degree and a well–paid post at the Danish Center for Information on Genocide. Now their furniture includes a pricey new Italian sofa and two sixties Danish Design armchairs. Both Malene and Rasmus make decent money, and little by little they’ve been able to afford more upscale pieces.

There’s little evidence, however, of Rasmus’s taste. After receiving a university degree in film studies, he couldn’t find a job, so now he sells computer hardware at trade shows all over Europe, requiring him to spend more than half the year on the road.

The telephone rings. Iben answers and recognizes the deep male voice with the Jutland accent. She has listened to Gunnar Hartvig Nielsen so many times on the current affairs program Orientation.

Iben calls Malene, who is presently sporting jeans and a fashionable, colorful silk shirt. It looks like her last bid in the dressing–up stakes, because she has put on some makeup.

Iben hears Malene turn down Gunnar’s suggestion that they should meet for dinner and invite him to join them at Sophie’s instead.

When Malene hangs up, Iben wonders aloud: “Could he really be bothered to come to Sophie’s?”

“Why not?”

“But what’s he going to do there?”

“Meet people, talk to me. Have a good time. Like we are.”

“Yeah…of course.”

Iben switches off the television and follows Malene to the bathroom, where Malene finishes putting on her makeup.

Iben had heard Gunnar Nielsen’s name for the first time when she was still a student. Everyone in her dorm shared a daily copy of Information, which published Gunnar’s stream of articles on international politics. They scrutinized every word and particularly admired and debated his reports from Africa.

Like Malene, Gunnar had grown up in rural Denmark. At nineteen, he joined a development project in Tanzania, where he taught himself Swahili, and then stayed on in Africa, traveling around for three and a half years. When he came home, he wrote a book about the continent, The Rhythms of Survival. It not only had become required reading for young backpackers, but also was taken seriously by people concerned with international issues.

By the time he was twenty–five, Gunnar was a well–established journalist. He had gone back to Africa several times. At one point, he had tried to combine university studies with his Information assignments to cover summit meetings and conferences, but the dull world of university life couldn’t compete with the excitement of being at the center of things, so he had dropped out of the course after little more than a year.

Iben and Malene were still at university when Gunnar’s newspaper pieces suddenly stopped. His fame as a star left–wing writer quickly faded.

Four years ago, when she was a student trainee at the DCIG, Malene had found out what had happened. She had managed to get hold of him for an interview about the horrific but at the time unrecognized genocide in the Sudan. Gunnar had taken a job as the editor of Development, a magazine published by Danida, the Danish state organization for international development. He had told her that, after his divorce, he needed a steady income to pay child support and to rent a new apartment with enough space for his children’s visits. His articles were as good as ever, but they went almost unnoticed by people outside the circle of Danida initiates.

Iben, who was studying comparative literature at the time, felt envious of her friend, who always met such exciting men through her work, and was good–looking enough to attract many of them. Her envy deepened when Gunnar invited Malene out to dinner.

More meals followed. Malene and Gunnar explored restaurants in every corner of the city, but did nothing else. Gunnar’s stocky frame, his “disillusioned Socialist” attitude, and, above all, the fact that he was in his midforties meant that Malene thought the chemistry between them wasn’t right, much as she loved dining out with him. Now and then she would tell Iben about how weary she felt when she saw the pleading in his large eyes.

Once Iben spoke out. “It isn’t fair to keep going out with Gunnar and letting him pay for one meal after another. He’s in love with you and you don’t even want to sleep with him.”

“Oh, come on. We always have such a good time together. And he’s said that he isn’t expecting anything more—you know, like love or sex.”

“But he’s got to pay for you all the same?”

“No, it’s not like that. It’s simple: he enjoys eating in restaurants and so do I, but I’m broke. If he couldn’t afford it and I could, I’d pay for him.”

When Malene met the younger, cooler Rasmus and became his girlfriend, he too tried to stop her evenings out with Gunnar. Iben overheard Malene say, “Rasmus, there’s nothing sexual between Gunnar and me. We’re just good friends.” Still, Rasmus had insisted that she should pay her share.
Before leaving, as Iben and Malene talk about who they'll see tonight, they wolf down some leftovers. In the hall, Malene quickly changes to another pair of her expensive orthopedic shoes, which she needs because of her arthritis. They drain their mojitos—and leave.

Reading Group Guide

“Excellent on so many things. . . . There is a hugely empathetic imagination behind this novel.” —The New York Times

The introduction, questions, and suggestions for further reading that follow are designed to enliven your group's discussion of Christian Jungersen's The Exception.

1. The Exception is a novel about the workplace, and it is a thriller. Do you feel that murder and death threats help to illustrate its issues of ostracism, maliciousness, and self-delusion-or do you feel the thriller elements take away from those concerns?

2. The book's structure is divided into parts which alternate between the perspectives of each of the four female protagonists. As we, in turn, follow Iben, Malene, Anne-Lise, and Camilla, we realize that their perceptions of what is going on are mutually exclusive. Do you agree that one and the same reality can give rise to such irreconcilable understandings?

3. After reading each of their points of view, how does your own perception of each woman change?

4. Iben and Malene write articles about the genocides of the twentieth century in which they examine the psychology of the perpetrators. How do their articles, which appear in the novel, further your understanding of the characters and their actions?

5. How does Anne-Lise's work life affect her family life and vice versa? What might Anne-Lise have done to avoid her situation?

6. Do you think the conflicts would be different if the four main characters were men? What if their boss were female?

7. Do you see your work experiences, or those of people close to you, in a different light?

8. Why do you think Camilla is so passive? What are the deeper secrets that she is hiding? How is her marriage to Finn a struggle for survival?

9. Why does Iben hold a bleak view of mankind? Do you find that her philosophy has been undermined by the end of the novel? Do you agree, as Anne-Lise's doctor says that “victimizing others is part of human nature” [p. 229]? What might make us think otherwise?

10. Are you one hundred percent sure who committed the murder?

11. The Exception portrays the psychological games the women play with each other and with themselves. In what ways are the psychological mechanisms they use to deny or justify their actions similar to the behavior of genocide perpetrators?

12. To whom or what does “the exception” of the title refer? At what point in the novel is that made apparent? How does that inform the events in the novel?

13. Do you believe that our understanding of how ordinary people can commit genocidal atrocities risks our ability to recognize and deter genocides from occurring and taking a hard-line on the punishment of war criminals? Or do you believe this understanding is imperative for future prevention of genocides?

Foreword

1. The Exception is a novel about the workplace and it is a thriller. Do you feel that murder and death threats help to illustrate its issues of ostracism, maliciousness, and self-delusion — or do you feel thriller elements takes away from those concerns?

2. The book’s structure is divided into parts which alternate between the perspectives of each of the four female protagonists. As we, in turn, follow Iben, Malene, Anne-Lise, and Camilla, we realize that their perceptions of what is going on are mutually exclusive. Do you agree that one and the same reality can give rise to such irreconcilable understandings?

3. After reading each of their points of view, how does your own perception of each of the women change?

4. Iben and Malene write articles about the genocides of the twentieth century in which they examine the psychology of the perpetrators. How do their articles, which appear in the novel, further your understanding of the characters and their actions?

5. How does Anne-Lise’s work life affect her family life and vice versa? What might Anne-Lise have done to avoid her situation?

6. Do you think the conflicts would be different if the four main characters were men? What if their boss were female?

7. Do you see your work experiences, or those of people close to you, in a different light?

8. Why do you think Camilla is so passive? What are the deeper secrets that she is hiding? How is her marriage to Finn a struggle for survival?

9. Why does Iben hold a bleak view of mankind? Do you find that her philosophy has been undermined by the end of the novel? Do you agree, as Anne-Lise’s doctor saysthat "victimizing others is part of human nature"? What might make us think otherwise?

10. Are you 100% sure who committed the murder?

11. The Exception portrays the psychological games the women play with each other and with themselves. In what ways are the psychological mechanisms they use to deny or justify their actions similar to the behavior of genocide perpetrators?

12. To whom or what does "the exception" of the title refer? At what point in the novel is that made apparent? How does that inform the events in the novel?

13. Do you believe that our understanding of how ordinary people can commit genocidal atrocities risks our ability to recognize and deter genocides from occurring and taking a hard-line on the punishment of war criminals? Or do you believe this understanding is imperative for future prevention of genocides?

Customer Reviews

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Exception 3 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 14 reviews.
JimElkins on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Excellent, very memorable novel. See the plot summaries, etc., written by the reviewers on Amazon.What matters in this book is the extremely unusual mixture of fiction and nonfiction. The researchers in the book write reports on evil, genocide, and other subjects, and we read them embedded in the novel. The facts in those reports are all real, and I learned, for example, about theories of evil in the Third Reich beginning with Arendt and continuing to the present.But then between the reports, the fictional authors continue to do evil to one another. It's a very effective device.When I met Jungersen in Copenhagen, he said he wrote intuitively, and he had little to add. I don't believe artists who claim they are intuitive: it's an easy out when it comes to public relations. I hope he changes his attitude to his own work.The book ends weakly, with a chapter ripped from (or written for) a Hollywood screenplay.
bfolds on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
This book surprised me....I anticipated a conventional psychological thriller, and it did deliver on that expectation. What I did not expect was the thought provoking examination of the nature of evil. I thorougly enjoyed it, and found that it stayed with me for days after closing the book.
michaelbartley on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
I liked this book, it is the story of a work enviroment, and the interpersonal issues that come in work. but also a real study of evil the ending is great because you dont know, at least I didnt know you did it
earthwind on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Perhaps it's not translated for American English as it is choppy and flat. Four Danish women in an office dealing with world horror of genocide. Immature, spiteful and inclined to lie down when anything out of the ordinary occurs. Or to call a meeting of the entire organization, all five of them, the male boss roped in. The group must then discuss the petty nonsense relentlessly. Probable TV serial. Maybe it was written for an American audience after all.
shawnd on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
This is one of the hardest books to review. I hesitate to use the word schizophrenic about the book, but that occurred to me after reading some of the hallucinations by one of the characters late in the book as being apropos about the book itself. Nominally a thriller, the book is basically US TV show 'The Office' meets John Le Carre book. The story centers around four female Danish officemates who work at a research library and activist organization against Genocide. The book moves along but the author gets a little 'cute' - or schizophrenic - in his use of the following techniques: skipping point of view of each of the four from chapter to chapter, breaking from that, inserting text of anti-genocide articles to the point where they are almost propaganda, and have little or nothing to do with the story, hallucinations, mental illness, multiple-personalities, etc. Were the book to have a couple fewer of these techniques it would be more solid. It received a world of praise, I believe it probably isn't as good as an International Book Award. Perhaps it's the translation but not a lot of sophisticated or even ultra-simple writing. The writing isn't labored, but it seems to be almost student writing. I wouldn't be suprised if this came out of a writing workshop or some process of mapping out plot by an academic rather than 'from the heart' or scratched out ad hoc. I hate to be negative on something that is truly unique. I am not sure anything like this has ever been written--with the combinations, the underlying political themes, mystery, all female protagonists. However the author resorts to pretty unbelievable and unconnected approaches at times.
bobbieharv on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
A very interesting book about the nature of evil (sort of like the fiction equivalent of The Lucifer Effect), explored in a strange combination of the banal (office politics) and the horrific (various accounts of genocide). It kept my interest throughout; the characters were very well developed, but the combination was jarring and the violence at the end was somewhat short of believable.
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catpaw More than 1 year ago
This book has such a promising beginning: mysterious, thrilling and suspenseful. The first clunk comes when a conversation between Iben and Gunnar, who have just met, at a party threatens to become a major bone of contention between Iben and Malene, who is Iben's best friend. From there it just gets worse. You would expect four women working at a Danish center for the study of genocide to be reasonably mature, even given that some of them might have serious personal problems (in this book, everyone does). But all it takes is for Iben to chat a little bit too long to Anne-Lise, and Malene is saying "Oh, so now she's your best friend". The goings-on in this office are more reminiscent of a girls' high school than the actions of women in their late 20s and 30s. Of course, office harrassment, bullying, office politics - they are all an ominous, damaging fact of life to which attention must be drawn, but it is portrayed rather childishly here. When something serious happens in the office or at home, the women blame, in quick succession, the worker who is being bullied and then a dangerous war criminal, and then the worker again, depending on whim and who is more friendly with whom that day. And these are people with academic degrees who are dealing with human suffering on a major scale! Crimes occur - and people blithely tell the police they know it was so-and-so "because she hates me". Interspersed with the increasingly unhinged goings-on and accusations are thoughtful pieces on the causes of evil and why and how seemingly "normal" people may end up killers and torturers. These pieces begin more and more to parallel what is really going on in the women's lives, and this is an interesting and intelligent interweaving of the two seemingly separate parts of the book. I realised that I was just reading to see how ridiculous the behavior of the protagonists would become and how far-fetched the plot. The conversations were so uniformly infantile that I wondered whether it might be a matter of translation: I can't say for sure, but the serious articles seemed well-written (and translated). I am astounded that this book has been so well-reviewed: it has noble aims, but the execution is terrible! Perhaps the author is as charming as he is good-looking...
X_in_SF More than 1 year ago
I couldn't put this book down! I loved the juxtaposition between the office life and the ¿international events.¿ I thought it was good observation about how one can simultaneously focus on what might be considered petty while at the same time focusing on the greater good. I also thought it was a great study on human behavior.

On a personal note I also enjoyed the fact that this was set in Europe and written by a European. I always enjoy a fresh POV and a little insight into a new culture.
Guest More than 1 year ago
I read the book in Swedish translated from Danish. I liked the book and I would recommend other to read it. I just browsed the long historical descriptions though, just because I am sensitive to such material. As a woman I found the dynamics between the women very familiar and interesting. I was held in suspense until the last page.
Guest More than 1 year ago
I was really looking forward to reading this book but found it somewhat unsatisfying. Maybe it was just the clunky translation, but it did not live up to my expectations. Instead of compelling, I found the characters to be petty and not too bright. From time to time the author would drop in historical episodes of genocide which interrupted the flow of the narrative and seemed lecturing and out of place.