The Unit – Ninni Holmqvist

The Unit

My Rating – 4 Stars

One of my favourite dystopian novels is Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro and The Unit echoes some of the former’s darker themes.  However it differs in that there appears to be less smoke and mirrors in the Swedish setting and it is thus a very different creature and a very thought provoking one at that.

The story begins with our narrator, Dorrit, a 50 year old single woman, going to the Second Reserve Bank Unit for Biological Material.  In the Unit, her new “home”, she leads a comfortable life, sheltered from the pressures of the outside world.  Residents can swim, relax in the sauna, go to the theatre, visit art exhibitions – quite a wide and varied lifestyle considering they are not allowed to ever leave the unit or contact friends or family.

Yes, folks, this is Scandinavia but  not as we know it – not crime fiction and craggy investigators as this is all legal and above board.  Dorrit is one of the “dispensables”, those unfortunate childless/single/gay folk who haven’t made a meaningful contribution to society by the age of 50 for women, 60 for men (fertility rules!).  Dorrit is an author, a creative type like most of her fellow inmates, whose artistic legacy isn’t highly valued by the current regime.

So, how can the dispensables give something back to society?  The solution is quite straightforward, for starters a kidney, then perhaps a cornea, followed by a liver section all leading up to the piece de resistance, the final donation.

What is more disturbing than all the experiments and organ donations, is the meek acquiesence and acceptance of Dorrit and her fellow dispensables – don’t expect any fireworks in the form of revolution, the atmosphere is distinctly Stepford Wives.   Ironically, Dorrit finds love for the first time with another resident, Johannes but their happiness is all the more poignant as we know it is short-lived.

Told in simple,unadorned prose this dystopian tale is a compelling read which I found extremely powerful and moving – a story which will remain with me and quite possibly “haunt” me for a long while…

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  1. SazzyMCH says:

    Oh my. This sounds horrifyingly wonderful!

  2. admin says:

    Sarah, it it so understated and matter of fact (Swedish style perhaps?) that you don’t realise the real horror of it all until after you’ve closed the last page – I’m still thinking about it.

  3. I had major issues with this one. I think it was mainly due to the fact there weren’t any fireworks. How could they take it so easily? It didn’t really ring true for me, but perhaps I’m just too rebellious!

  4. I really should read Never Let Me Go – I have seen the film but not read the book. I like the sound of this one too, have added it to my wishlist.

  5. admin says:

    Jackie, I think it is indicative of the characteristics we usually associate with the Swedish – a certain pragmatism, that phlegmatic way of dealing with problems plus (as I was astounded to discover) Swedish authorities carried out systematic forced sterilisation of over 21,000 women between the early 1930s and 1976 – women who didn’t fit their ideal of perfection. Of course they weren’t the only country to do this but it’s odd how things like this were kept quiet for so many years…truth is indeed stranger than fiction!

  6. admin says:

    Sam, I wonder what it would be like to read Never Let Me Go having watched the film and having that “knowledge” – I must suggest it as a possibility to my new reading group, it would be interesting to re-read it.

  7. Iris says:

    This sounds horrifying and I’m not sure if I could deal with that aspect of the novel, but I am excited to learn about Scandinavian fic that is not crime.

  8. admin says:

    It’s very understated Iris as in there is no gore and everyone just very quietly goes about their day to day existence, heads stuck in the sand but I think it’s the fact it’s not that incredible that I found most “horrifying”. I think you’d find it interesting.

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