If a friend recommended a book that she described in her email as “a thriller translated from Danish, the story has broad psychological and moral themes” – would you be racing out to the bookstore? Probably not, but after my friend could not stop talking about this book – I decided to give it a go. And I’m so happy that I did. The Exception by Christian Jungersen is one of the best books I have recently read.
This book, a bestseller in Europe, is a fascinating study of human nature. The story is set in a non-profit organization that studies and disseminates information on genocide. This organization is only staffed by 5 employees and when a couple of them receive a death threat – the dynamics within their little office quickly spiral downhill.
Their first thought is that one of the war criminals that they have been tracking down is threatening them but through the irrationality of human nature, they quickly turn on each other. Each chapter is told from the viewpoint of one of the employees which allows the reader to see how the same incident or situation can be interpreted completely differently by each of the characters within the novel.
The 4 women who are central to the book all have their own personal histories and tragedies. One was bullied as a child, one has a debilitating arthritic disease, one was taken hostage in Africa while working for an aid organization and the last one had serious relationship issues. These personal histories all play a large part in how they react to the death threats and how they start to become suspicious of each other and end up forming factions within their own organization.
What is so ironic about their deteriorating relationship is that these are women that study the psychology of genocide and what causes rational people to commit murder and atrocious crimes; yet, they end up demonstrating many of the same behaviors which they study. They use their subject knowledge to further their own suspicions rather than taking a step back and becoming aware that their actions mirror many of the abhorrent behaviors during genocide.
The unraveling of who sent the death threats takes many twists and turns and the author leaves you in suspense until the very end and even then does not positively solve the mystery for you.
I also admired the way that Jungersen used his setting to educate the reader about genocide. I learned so much about the various genocides that have occurred during the 20th century as well as the psychological studies about group think and behaviors in these situations. There were a few studies described that I already knew about such as the Stanford Prison Experiment in which college students volunteered for a study and 1/2 are prisoners and 1/2 are guards. Within days the prisoners became passive, depressed, and despairing while the guards became agressive, callous and hostile. There were no significant personality differences between the 2 groups at the beginning of the experiment but it demonstrated that people act according to the roles given to them by external forces. There were many other experiments and studies that Jungersen described that I found fascinating.
The Exception was educational, thought provoking, entertaining, and a real page-turner. And it accomplishes all this even though it is set in Denmark and translated into English. Kudos to Jungersen – not an easy feat.