Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Christian Jungersen's The Exception

I’ve just finished the Danish novel Undtagelsen – in English, The Exception, by Christian Jungersen. I bought it in April in the Copenhagen airport on a friend’s suggestion. I’d never heard of it, had no idea it was a European bestseller, and had been translated into English (reviewed in The New York Times no less). I spent two weeks completely engrossed in this psychological thriller. It’s rare to encounter a plot so Byzantine that up until the last few pages I couldn’t have guessed how it was going to end and who would be responsible for a whole series of lesser and greater crimes.

The Exception has four main female characters, all of whom work at the small, invented office of the  Danish Center for Genocide Information. There’s a great deal about genocide in the background; in the foreground are the complex and shifting relationships among the women and the petty, mean, and incomprehensible ways they treat each other. In reality I don’t quite go along with this portrait of women coworkers and the philosophical underpinning of the novel is a bit jejune (we are all evil under the surface, or no, we aren’t). But as a masterful story with a hundred twists and turns and real insight into the dark depths of office rivalries and harassment, it’s riveting.

I was thinking as I read it, about another Scandinavian mystery from earlier this year, Snowman, by Norwegian Jo Nesbø. A gruesome page-turner, but I have to say that the murderer seemed obvious to me from around page 120 or so. And for all the ratcheting up of tension, the ending seemed contrived. How exactly was someone supposed to bring in enough snow to make a giant snowman in an upstairs room while the people downstairs were around? I felt plagued by questions like this. But The Exception, while hardly a traditional thriller, had my mind spinning like a top. I’m still putting all the clues together, a day after finishing it, and full of admiration for Jungersen’s cleverness and psychological understanding.

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