Tuesday, March 15, 2016

Book Review: "The Unit" by Ninni Holmqvist

The Unit Ninni Holmqvist (translator: Marlaine Delargy)
Published: June 9, 2009
ISBN: 9781590513132
Genre: Speculative Fiction
Source: Book Club
Highly Recommended

You might enjoy this book if you like: Scandinavian literature, Speculative Fiction, Never Let Me Go (movie or book by Kazuo Ishiguro), novels with more mature characters

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? 

My Thoughts:
This is one of those weird cases where a book was exactly what I thought it would be and nothing like what I thought it would be.  The summary of this book lets you know exactly what is going on and, if you haven't read that, you would know by the end of the first chapter.  There aren't any surprises in the plot, but this book raises some very interesting questions.

The basis of the story is chilling and inhumane, and that does not change--although it is interesting how starkly inhumane the situation is, even with the efforts to make life (and death) very humane.  It comes down to one central question:  What is the worth of human life?

In this dystopian Sweden that Holmqvist has created, people are considered worthy if they are in a stable relationship and/or have children and/or make a certain amount of money.  If you fit any of that criteria, you are "necessary." If you don't meet those criteria, you are "dispensable" and shipped off to a Unit on your 50th or 60th birthday, depending on your gender.

Dorrit spends some time thinking about the choices in her life and how they had landed her in the Unit.  The thing is, her choices were not bad ones.  She didn't marry because that was expected of her.  She didn't take a high-paying job because her passion was to be a writer.  She didn't have a child because her life was such that she could not provide for it.  These are not bad choices, but they gave her a death sentence simply because she wasn't an "asset" to society.

Dorrit also mentions that this should never have happened--that she remembered when the political party currently in power was just starting.  No one really took their crazy ideas seriously and they were voted into office...and now people who are still in just middle age are being used as lab rats and farmed for their organs.

Dorrit is such a fabulous character.  Holmqvist captures the range of her emotions so well--from anger and fear to hope and happiness to, well, you'll have to read the book to see.  While we don't get into the heads of Dorrit's friends in the unit, the story is told in the first person voice from Dorrit, they are also fascinating.  They are people who devoted their lives to their passions and now have to pay the ultimate price.  As I said, you know where this book is going, but that doesn't make it any less chilling or heartbreaking.

I also appreciated that this book dealt with people of a certain age and, despite the set up of the book, didn't label them as elderly.  Really, 50 and 60 is not old and Dorrit in particular was in incredibly good health--at one point, they said she had the physical fitness of a 22 year old.  The juxtaposition between a society telling people they are useless and the actual people who are full of life and potential is very telling.

The only thing that bothered me about this book--I didn't understand why there wasn't a rush among people in their late 40s to marry just anybody, knowing that if they remained single they would be sent to a Unit?  Later in the book, they mention that people begin to try frantically to have children and kidnappings are on the rise, so the idea is there.  Maybe I was thinking about it too hard, but I just got stuck on that one (admittedly small!) point.

I was torn between not wanting to face what was happening in this book and not being able to put it down.  This was a fantastic book that I would recommend to anyone.

I was not solicited for this review and I received no compensation for this post.

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