Christian Jungersen’s ‘The Exception’ is a kind of book I have never read before. Ever.
Iben, Malene, Camilla, Anne-Lise and Paul run the Danish Center for Genocide News, an organisation committed to studying and preventing Genocide. Anne-Lise doesn’t fit in from the beginning, and is slowly and subtly targeted by the dashing and young best friends Iben & Malene. Camilla has a secretive life and sides with the two to escape being ostracised. Anne-Lise starts loosing her mind. When the staff starts receiving death threats, presumably from a war criminal, the group dynamics spirals into a vortex that culminates into the same violence that the characters study professionally.
As the story progresses, it is clear that these highly educated and morally conscious social psychologists, who professionally excel in understanding complex group dynamics, segregation, discrimination, social aggression, and victim-blaming that occurs in every major genocide, can not grasp the ramifications of their own behaviour. Even when they do, they can not control it.
It is a strange paradox that so much of what we all understand intellectually and objectively about external situations, fails to touch us in personal life.
Throughout the novel, scholarly articles about the social psychology of genocidal violence are interspersed with the minutiae of the staff’s lives. An eerie sense of for boding prevails throughout the book. One of the great things about the book are these chapters that delve in-depth of psychological study about racist groups violently and systematically targeting and eliminating minorities in countries like Germany, Serbia,Yugoslavia, Rwanda, Bangladesh. ( I was thinking about Godhra all the while). We gradually learn parallels between the situation in the small office and the historical tragedies: Why do seemingly normal groups perpetrate violence when they don’t have to, how a victim, once broken, starts blaming herself, how indirect references act as potent poison to malign. And after couple of chapters, as the intensity of the genocidal studies continues plumbing uncomfortable depths of the hidden monsters in everyone, we know that this group of intellectual Danish humanists are going to repeat the same mistakes they professionally warn against.
You must read this yourself. It is one of those notoriously difficult books to review, without giving away all the delicious darkness it slowly uncovers.
It is entertaining, eerie and truly outstanding. More than anything, it is as genre defying, as individualistic and as unique a book as you can find.
My biggest issue with the book is the almost exclusive feminine setting. While I love dark female characters to pits, in this book, the larger context of passive-aggressive bullying as well as hyper-sensitive psychological degradation could be labeled as a typical feminine , competitive violence. I wish the author had taken a more mixed group to avoid getting in an intellectual cat-fight kinda situations.
I also found a few reactions a bit exaggerated. Sometimes the novels plunges into almost surreal feelings and incidents, which could be intentional, but to me it seemed little put offish.
If you like dark literary fiction that makes you squirm and makes you question your own uncomfortable impulses, go for this.
I read such books and all my resolve to step out of my Scandinavian comfort zone vanishes. Why bother when an entire region produces mind-blowing fiction that will last me a life-time, even if I don’t indulge in repeat-reading?
And while we are on the Scandies, I also recommend Asa Schwarz’s Nephilim. A story of Nova, who is a Greenpeace volunteer and an eco-warrior, the novel mixes the biblical legend of Nephilims with a very current issue of climate change. It is a perfect genre hot-pot of doomsday- eco-disaster, murder-mystery, fantasy, and police-procedural. I loved all three major, powerful female characters. I loved the mingling of past with present. I loved the unabashed theme of human beings being a second-rate nuisance to the world. If you feel like killing people who act and talk about ‘development’ at the cost of everything non-human- you will like it. It is not great, but has a sweet sincerity which I found cathartic.
The next book I am going to download is American, and I am already dreading the geographical transition… choosy armchair bigass potato I have become!!