the exceptionWe distort our memories when it serves our purposes. Our thoughts too. Even our senses cannot be trusted; we reshape the messages they send to suit our needs

The Exception by Christian Jungergsen is one of those exceptionally good books that one doesn’t expect to be neither exceptional nor good. Found by total chance and randomness, The Exception didn’t promise anything exceptional. It started off fairly slowly, it lacked particular literary wit and it seemed to be a rather boring read spanning into 512 pages and endless hours.

And yet slowly, The Exception draws the reader into an increasingly paranoid anc claustrophobic society, in which no one is what they seem to be. Set somewhat peacefully in a small non-for-profit organisation in Copenhagen, The Danish Center for Information on Genocide (DCIG), which disseminates information on genocide, the novel follows the increasingly disturbing relationships between the four women working there. After two (and later three) of them receive death threats, the suspicion quickly turns from a persecuted Serbian torturer and war criminal to each other. The suspicion and fear soon turn seemingly ordinary people into enemies and a seemingly normal office into a pure battlefield. Friendships are no longer what they used to be and survival against an unknown threat becomes a scary driving force. Told alternatively from the perspective of the four women, Iben, Malene, Camilla and Anne-Lise, The Exception disects the natural of evil and paranoia, and the obsessions that drive ordinary people to commit unthinkable acts.

Iben and Malene, are the youngest and the oldest friends in the team and understandably become the strongest force. Camilla, a bit older than them, manages to attach herself to the winning side, which leaves Anne-Lise as the scapegoat. Being a victim of extensive office bullying, I can vouch it’s terrible. Ignoring, confronting, crying, yelling, acting nice – nothing really diminishes the hunger of the torturer, especially when the victim is alone and new. The inner lives of the four women, their worst fears and most fervently kept secrets are revealed as everyone soon turns on to everyone else and alliances are shattered and reborn. Christian Jungersen creates a unique and intelligent thriller, which, though it lacks particular literary qualities, manages to haunt the reader by manifesting the nature and power of evil.

Alongside the main story, a separate story within the story elegantly discusses the nature of evil. As the women prepare articles on genocide, they touch on the ultimate subject – what makes people evil. Are we just born good or evil, do circumstances make us like that or is it something even more complicated? Analysing one of the most devastating moments in history, the Holocaust, research has found that most people turn evil not out of fear of punishment or out of pure evilness of heart, but out of respect for authority and even more out of solidarity – the fear not to abandon, or worse, be abandoned. The greatest human fear – the fear of being alone and left out – is what would make people commit even the unthinkable. Good people are capable of committing evil acts and continue their lives as normal – either by repressing the memories or in extreme cases splitting into two personalities, one of which absolutely unaware of what the other did.

Christian Jurgensen’s psychological novel goes beyond the daily issues of four women – it goes on to examine the inhesion of evil, the driving forces behind it and the ultimate price everyone pays. And what better a setting than an unhappy and claustrophobic office. The ending does justice to the novel as well – disturbing, painful, and yet exactly what each of the characters really deserved.

Other favourite quotes:

He’s been laying siege to these walls for years, and now she’ll let the gate swing open after the gentlest of knocks.