Sunday, May 31, 2009

Review: The Unit

Written by Ninni Holmqvist
Translated from the Swedish by Marlaine Delargy
Other Press, 2009; 268 pages
Originally published in Sweden, 2006

This review refers to an advance uncorrected proof of the novel, received through Library Thing's Early Reviewer program.

Description from Random House:
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 is a gripping exploration of 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. Ninni Holmqvist has created a debut novel of humor, sorrow, and rage about love, the close bonds of friendship, and about a cynical, utilitarian way of thinking disguised as care.

A novel of humor, sorrow, and rage, indeed. But not nearly enough rage! What these people needed was an armed insurrection!

It's hard to know exactly what to say about this book without sounding excessively negative. And I wouldn't want to do that because I thought it was well-written and a quick read, and certainly an interesting idea for a good science fiction-y novel. But I can't really say I enjoyed it. Maybe if I were younger, or a parent, and not so very near to Dorrit's situation myself, I could be more dispassionate! As it is, I can identify just a little too closely with those "dispensables" to make this a comfortable read.

It's certainly true that as the book progresses, Dorrit's situation becomes more and more "unbearable." But I wouldn't agree that it happens suddenly – it's unbearable from the very start. The whole idea of a society based on the sacrifice of one group for the survival of another chosen group is abhorrent – just, I suspect, as Holmqvist intended it to be. It was difficult to stick with the book as characters kept disappearing without warning and sometimes without explanation (including Dorrit's older sister), heading for that final sacrificial "donation." I also found the ending (which is a bit of a surprise) very hard to accept; in the same circumstances, I don't think I'd make the same decision.

However, having said all that, I would still definitely recommend it for readers who can handle the very chilly subject matter. I think it's an extremely readable novel – just a little too disturbing for my taste.

Challenges: 20 in 2009; Lost in Translation; Read Your Own Books (RYOB); Spring Reading Thing


  1. The idea is compelling, it's too bad that it didn't quite reach it's potential for you. Great review!

  2. I just got this book yesterday - I hope I like it more than you did.


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