Thursday Book Talk: “The Unit,” by Ninni Holmqvist

Disclosure: I received an Advance Reader’s Copy of this book for review through LibraryThing’s Early Reviewers Program.

The Unit by Ninni Holmqvist
The Unit: A Novel
Ninni Holmqvist (translated from Swedish by Marlaine Delargy)
Other Press, 2009 (paperback original) (ISBN 1590513134 / 9781590513132)
Fiction, 272 pages

First sentence: It was more comfortable than I could have imagined.

Book description: One day in early spring, Dorrit Weger is checked into the Second Reserve Bank Unit for biological material. She is promised a nicely furnished apartment inside the Unit, where she will make new friends, enjoy the state of the art recreation facilities, and live the few remaining days of her life in comfort with people who are just like her. Here, women over the age of fifty and men over sixty–single, childless, and without jobs in progressive industries–are sequestered for their final few years; they are considered outsiders. In the Unit they are expected to contribute themselves for drug and psychological testing, and ultimately donate their organs, little by little, until the final donation. Despite the ruthless nature of this practice, the ethos of this near-future society and the Unit is to take care of others, and Dorrit finds herself living under very pleasant conditions: well-housed, well-fed, and well-attended. She is resigned to her fate and discovers her days there to be rather consoling and peaceful. But when she meets a man inside the Unit and falls in love, the extraordinary becomes a reality and life suddenly turns unbearable. Dorrit is faced with compliance or escape, and…well, then what?

THE UNIT explores a society in the throes of an experiment, in which the “dispensable” ones are convinced under gentle coercion of the importance of sacrificing for the “necessary” ones.

Comments: When I requested this book through LibraryThing, I was intrigued by the concept, which reminded me in some ways of Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go. I read that one a few months ago and found the ideas in it fascinating, but just didn’t connect with it; The Unit seemed to offer another chance to explore some of those themes, so I thought I’d give it a shot.

There are similarities in the two books, which I plan to explore more in another post, but they’re very different as well, and so was my reaction to them. I made that connection with The Unit, and it resonated emotionally as well as intellectually with me in ways that Never Let Me Go didn’t.

The Unit takes place in a modern society where, if you make it to the age of fifty (if you’re a woman – it’s sixty for men) without becoming a parent and/or pursuing a socially-beneficial profession, you are considered “dispensable.” You’re not “needed” – relationships with spouses, siblings, and even pets don’t count, nor do many jobs. However, there are still a few things you can do for “the community;” the Unit will make all the arrangements for them, and they’ll make your life quite comfortable in the bargain.

Dorrit Weger arrives in the Unit at her appointed time, and it doesn’t take long for her to acclimate to its odd little world. After all, nearly everything its residents need is readily provided for them, and not much is required of them other than participation in various scientific studies. She and the other residents have much in common, and she forms some deep and rewarding friendships…but the progress of one of those relationships is a stark reminder that relationships within the Unit don’t count, either. Dorrit’s life takes some unantcipated turns which force her to make some decisions, while other decisions are forced on her.

The Unit was originally published in Sweden in 2006. In translation, the language is uncomplicated and direct, and the story it tells is compelling, chilling in spots, and at times heartbreaking. I thought Dorrit was a fully-realized, all-too-human character. Holmqvist is as interested in exploring Dorrit’s inner life as she is in her outer circumstances; her story grabbed me, and I don’t think it could have ended any other way.

I found The Unit to be unsettling and thought-provoking, and well worth reading unless you require warm fuzzies from your books – it delivers a lot, but not those.

Rating: 4/5

If you have read and reviewed this book, please leave a link in comments or e-mail it to me at 3.rsblog AT Gmail DOT com, and I’ll edit this review to include it.

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  1. I'll be reading this soon and I'm sure it will be unsettling for me since I'm at that magical age – 50. I do like books that make me think, though.

  2. Kathy (Bermudaonion) – I'm close enough to 50 that it was unsettling for that reason too, but it was more that I kept thinking that a few years ago, my life looked a bit like Dorrit's.

    Diane – It's officially out this month. I'll be interested in seeing what you think of it.

    Emily – Not completely disturbing, but it certainly has its moments.

    Jackie (FarmLaneBooks) – It seems to be getting a pretty favorable reaction on the book blogs, from what I've seen so far.

  3. Sounds like an interesting book. There have been quite a few SF stories with the similar idea, though a bit different of course.

    I hope I'm not considered dispensible at 50…:)

  4. Thanks for the link love, Florinda. I appreciate it. I'm still thinking about this book. Like you, a few years ago, they would've been picking me up in the van.

  5. Mike – This kind of thing is probably as close to sci-fi as I usually get.

    And you have kids, which automatically makes you "indispensible." You'd be fine :-).

    Cathy – I'm not childless, but my child's not a child anymore; he's almost 25. But he hasn't lived with me for several years now, and there were a few years post-divorce from his dad when…well, my relationships wouldn't have counted.

    I don't think I'm done thinking about this book either.

  6. Have you seen the movie Logan's Run? The description of the book reminds me a bit of that. This sounds like such an interesting book. Thanks for your great review, Florinda.

  7. Wendy (Literary Feline) – I haven't seen it, but I know the premise, and this book did remind me of it too. But at least in this society, they let you get past the age of 30 :-)!