Over the holidays the last few years I’ve earmarked two days to devote to reading and only reading. A luxury? For a writer, reading is essential. I read good novels for craft, story, characters and language. I read bad novels (sometimes) to see if I can figure out what made them bad. I have done the same with screenplays in the past, especially when I participated as a member of Triggerstreet.com. I’m not writing screenplays at the moment, so my focus is on novels.
The Exception by Danish writer Christian Jungersen riveted me for not just Christmas day, but compelled me to read it whenever I could find an hour or two the rest of that week. Jungersen set this psychological suspense story in contemporary Copenhagen during one autumn, in a claustrophobic government agency that collects and disseminates research and information on genocide. Four women work in the office: Iben, Malene, Anne-Lise and Camilla. Their boss comes and goes. On the surface, everything looks normal, but as the story progresses through the four different points of view of the women, the reader discovers that someone among them (or an outsider? a Serbian war criminal?) is terrorizing them, first with threatening e-mails and then with sabotage that escalates to murder.
I liked Jungersen’s choice to tell the story through four different points of view. It humanized each of the women even as it implicated each, heightening the suspense. His scenes of office bullying are chilling in their accuracy and uncomfortable to read at times. And Iben’s treatises on the psychology of evil become wonderfully ironic by the end. Jungersen’s focus is on character, on the relationships and the psychology of each woman. He spends less time on physical description or description of places with exceptions — the office, Iben’s experience in Kibera in Nairobi, Anne-Lise’s home and Malene’s apartment. Anyone who has worked in an office, small or large, will find something to relate to in this story.
What makes a person evil? How does someone who does evil think? These are fascinating questions and Jungersen makes a stab at suggesting possibilities. However, I was disappointed that once again a writer chooses to include DID (Dissociative Identity Disorder, formerly known as Multiple Personality Disorder) as a possible culprit without also making a strong case against it. He brings up Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder also, but while he presents them as possibilities, he doesn’t delve very far into the psychology and under what circumstances they can lead to “evil.” He comes very close with Iben without closing the deal. Not everyone with DID or PTSD does evil.
What is evil? I liked that Jungersen targets genocide as evil, but he also suggests that evil can be on a very personal, intimate level, too. However, he leaves any conclusions to the reader, and I liked that very much. It made for a stunning resolution.
Jungersen’s themes mirror my own in the Perceval series but I approach them from a different direction. And here is the importance of reading for a writer: to discover that one is not alone in one’s thoughts and dreams, and that others have ideas as valid and interesting that enrich the world. My ideas are also valid and interesting. Regarding craft, for me Jungersen’s decision about point of view was the most important and educational. He did an excellent job of showing the mental state of each of the women in the office.
Recommendation: Worth buying and reading now in hardcover. Great for book groups.