Four women work at the Danish Centre for Genocide Information. Iben and Malene are old friends from University who are now project officers at the Centre, Camilla is secretary to the Centre’s Director and Anna-Lise, the newest member of staff, is the librarian. Iben and Malene receive death threats via email and attempt to work out whether the source of the threats was one of the war criminals they have written about as part of their work or someone within their own office. Chapters told from each of the women’s point of view build up a picture of how psychological stress impacts on a fairly closed micro-environment.
This turned out to be one of those books that, for several reasons, sounded like a better idea than it turned out to be in reality. For a start I have a vague uneasiness about books in which all the female characters are portrayed with varying degrees of mental instability, especially when the book is authored by a bloke. Although I don’t really think that in this instance anything sinister is meant by the depictions, it wasn’t that many years ago when ‘all women are crazy’ was considered a legitimate medical opinion (I read loads of such sentiments in my days as an archivist). A good deal of the behaviour depicted here would have had misogynists everywhere nodding sagely and murmuring about women staying at home where they belong. So while the psychological breakdown of each character was well done I would have preferred that at least one of the women had turned out not to be a sex-obsessed, blithering mess (or worse).
Also, as is often the case these days I thought the book was too long. At many points in the story a load of detail about some minor tangent was incorporated and even though some of these were interesting most did nothing to progress the story. At 300-350 pages and minus trivia about who sat next to whom at a conference and how many meals of frozen cod were microwaved I would have found the book far more suspenseful.
I read a good deal of translated fiction and normally don’t notice it except to marvel at a skill I could never hope to achieve. However in this instance I found the language to be rather formal. I know we Aussies have a tendency towards laziness with our particular adaptation of the lingo but I don’t know of any place where English is the primary language that would talk of someone ‘fixing herself a portion of cereal’ for example. It felt to me as if the book had been translated into a sort of dictionary version of the language that no one actually speaks and this gave it a quite unnatural quality.
Finally there was my all too familiar disappointment with the ending. Even allowing for the slightly fantastical element provided by a psychological melt down the ending wasn’t in keeping with the rest of the book. A fairly standard thriller-ish conclusion was bolted on to three quarters of a psychological suspense novel in a way that didn’t suit either style and I found this quite unsatisfying. It did keep me guessing though so I have to give some marks for that.
The structure of the book, which included several articles supposedly written by Iben about the psychology of evil in addition to the different points of view, worked surprisingly well and I was both fascinated and horrified by the parts of the book that dealt with all the genocides in our planet’s history. However this made me more tempted to seek out some non-fiction about yet another subject I appear to be woefully ignorant of rather than keen to read another book by this author.
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As is often the case my opinion is a minority one because the book was shortlisted for the International Dagger in 2007. A review at Euro Crime provides an alternative viewpoint on the merits of The Exception.
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My rating 3/5
Translator: Anna Paterson; Publisher: Weidenfeld & Nicolson ; ISBN: 9780297852513; Length 487 pages; Setting: Denmark, present-day.
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