The Exception by Christian JungersenThe Exception by Christian Jungersen

The Exception

byChristian Jungersen

Paperback | July 8, 2008

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Four women – intimate with the psychology of evil – work together for a small nonprofit that disseminates information on genocide. When two of them receive death threats, they immediately believe the messages come from one of their recently profiled war criminals. As the tensions mount among the women, each discovers that none of the others is exactly the person they seem to be. Their obsession with tracking down the killer turns into a witch hunt: one by one, the women dismiss the idea that the threats were sent from the outside and begin to suspect each other, disclosing the jealousies and contempt that have been simmering just beneath the surface.

A tautly woven philosophical drama with all the trimmings of an electrifying murder mystery, The Exception heralds Christian Jungersen as a gifted storyteller and keen observer of the human psyche.

From the Hardcover edition.
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 his first novel to be translated into English. He divides his time between Dublin and Copenhagen.From the Hardcover edition.
Title:The ExceptionFormat:PaperbackDimensions:512 pages, 8.6 × 5.25 × 1.05 inPublished:July 8, 2008Publisher:Doubleday CanadaLanguage:English

The following ISBNs are associated with this title:

ISBN - 10:0385661967

ISBN - 13:9780385661966

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Read from the Book

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.From the Hardcover edition.

Bookclub Guide

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 says that "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?

Editorial Reviews

“Danish author Christian Jungersen tells an intriguing story in The Exception. . . . The novel has fiendish turns.” —New York Daily News“Extraordinary. . . . Jungersen’s spare, Danish approach to language is effective here, leaving us with a humming tension instead of catharsis at the book’s end. The alst page will make you wonder if you would have behaved any differently from these women, while fervently hoping that you, out of millions, might be the exception.” —Star Tribune“The Exception 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. . . . 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.” — The New York Times Book Review“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.” —New Yorker“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.” —Times Literary Supplement“It’s a wincingly nasty, brilliant piece of work.” —Literary Review“From the quiet, understated early chapters the story develops into a tense struggle for survival. . . . It is a powerful yet disquieting study of the psychology of evil, and a tense thriller.” — Sunday Telegraph“A taut book with a powerful hook. . . . Terrific stuff.” — Peter Guttridge, Observer “[A] disturbing and strongly written novel.” — Good Book Guide“Original and brilliantly constructed… [this] thriller will appeal to readers who normally steer clear of murder mysteries.” — Times Online“[The Exception] is so uncomfortably real for anyone who 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.”–Library Journal“The way Christian Jungersen makes a connection between historical persecutors and ordinary people–such as you and I–is spellbinding. I couldn’t stop reading it. Now I can’t stop thinking about it.” – Åsa Larsson, author of Sun Storm“The slow burn of office politics can be just as riveting as international intrigue, as shown in Jungersen's second novel, his first to be translated into English. . . . "Victimizing is part of human nature," Anne-Lise's doctor tells her when she seeks advice, and the novel hauntingly pursues this idea to its deepest implications. Can people fighting genocide display the same traits as war criminals? What does it mean to be evil? Jungersen (Thickets) explores these questions and others on a very personal level. A complex understanding of people turns what could have been pace-slowing conversations and reproductions of essays on genocide into fuel for a sometimes cruel but always intense page-turner.”–Publisher’s Weekly (starred review)“Truly an exception. . . . [A] highly original psychological thriller.” —The Economist“A horribly vivid and fiendishly clever novel.” —The Independent (UK)“Wise and disturbing. . . . After reading The Exception, you may never look at your colleagues in quite the same way again.” —Liz Jensen, author of The Ninth Life of Louis DraxFrom the Hardcover edition.