Review of “The Unit” by Ninni Holmqvist

If you don’t have children, if you choose to follow your dream instead of choosing compromise or security or “normality” (read: heterosexuality), what is your life worth? Not much, in this futuristic Scandinavian society. You are designated as a “dispensable,” which means you are locked away to have your body available for testing and organ harvesting on behalf of those who contribute more usefully to the nation’s prosperity.

The facility to which you are taken is a plush one, designed to quash all thoughts of noncompliance. Everything is free, including delicious food and new clothes; there are lovely garden walkways and top-of-the-line sports facilities, crafts, dancing, movies, and even a library. For the women over 50 and men over 60 delivered to the institution each month, it seems ideal….until, of course, your pancreas or lungs or heart is needed for someone else.

Dorrit Weger, a would-be writer, is sad when she first arrives at the Second Reserve Bank Unit for Biological Material. She misses her dog Jock terribly, but soon warms up to her new friends and even acquires a new love interest. Likewise, she adapts quickly to the omnipresent surveillance – there are cameras in every conceivable nook and cranny – and after a short while she forgets they are there. She spends her early days in the facility undergoing tests, swimming, visiting the theater, and going to the library.

Kjell, who volunteers in the library, points out to Dorrit that the library is quite busy:

“‘…it’s because there are so many intellectuals here. People who read books.’

‘I see,’ I said…’

‘People who read books,’ he went on, ‘tend to be dispensable. Extremely.’”

Dorrit has spent her life resisting dependency on others and following her youthful dream of writing. Paradoxically, she buys into the gender stereotypes with no equivocation:

“I think it’s beautiful when men show their physical strength openly without being ashamed of it or apologizing. And I think it’s beautiful when women dare to be physically weak and accept help with heavy jobs. I believe there’s a kind of courage in that, and courage is beautiful.”

In spite of her seeming conformity however, she harbors a rebellious streak, and wrestles with how far she wants to go to change her fate, even if she could. Interestingly, there are indications that some staff members, who are free to come and go, are outraged over the fate of the “dispensables” and would join a revolt if one were started. The “dispensables,” however, who have gone their whole adult lives without the reinforcement of nuclear family groupings, now find they live in a close-knit, supportive environment. Is it worth giving up? Should it be given up? Are children the only reason for living, or is love – whether for someone of the same sex or even for a pet – in and of itself enough? Should justification for life be needed even on a planet with scarce resources?

These are questions we might find ourselves actually considering someday. In some ways, with the allocation of health care that favors those with personal resources, we already have been addressing these issues, albeit without articulating them.

Evaluation: This is a thought-provoking novel that will make you think twice about a whole host of issues, and is a natural for book club discussions.

Rating: 4/5

Published in the U.S. by Other Press, 2009

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23 Responses to Review of “The Unit” by Ninni Holmqvist

  1. diane says:

    sounds a bit like Coma, which I enjoyed.

  2. Frances says:

    This book was a real surprise for me as I was not expecting to enjoy it nearly as much as I did. I think the thing that distinguished this book from some other dystopian fiction for me was that the segregation of these “dispensibles” was not rooted in the physical as much as the psychological makeup of the group. And then of course the profiles of the inhabitants of the unit bore close resemblance to many book blogger types.

  3. Trisha says:

    This sounds like a really interesting read. It’s been quite a while since I’ve read adult dystopia, so thanks for the suggestion.

  4. JoAnn says:

    I’ve been wanting to read this ever since Frances’ review. Now if I could just get my book club to choose it…

  5. bermudaonion says:

    This book is different from what I normally read, but I liked it a lot. I was 50 when I read it, so it really struck a chord with me.

  6. Margot says:

    It’s not the type of book I normally gravitate towards but it seems to raise so many issues that I think it would be a good brain exerciser for me.

  7. She says:

    I really enjoyed this book. Isn’t it scary how it’s totally plausible that something like this might happen– and in the near future at that!

  8. Sandy says:

    This type of book is really up my alley, and has been on my radar for some time. If it throws itself into my path, I might read it. (That is really the only way I will read anything these days, as I am drowning!)

  9. Janel says:

    I think the concept of this books sounds very thought provoking. What ARE we worth? Great review.

  10. Steph says:

    I do so love dystopian novels so this sounds exactly like the kind of thing I would enjoy… but it also reminds me a lot of Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro… Have you read that novel? If so, do you think the two compare?

    Also, what did you think of the writing? I assume this is a translated work of fiction – was the prose fluid, or did it feel choppy?

    • Steph,

      Yes, I read Never Let Me Go, and I liked that one much less. Also, they are in fact somewhat different. For example, in The Unit, everyone knows what’s going on. And of course in NLMG, you have characters who are young, compared to characters at the end of their “useful” lives in The Unit. At the time I read Never Let Me Go, I thought it was a depressing, unsatisfying novel. The three main characters seemed emotionally stunted in annoying ways. The ending, though, is similar in both. But they are different enough, that I think both are worth reading. As for the writing, I’d say the translator did just fine. I might quibble more with the pace, but I find Scandinavians in general write stories that are less frenetic!

  11. JoV says:

    I saw so much review about this one. Sounds thought provoking, and if you say it’s good, it must be good! 🙂

  12. Aarti says:

    I’ve heard a lot about this book. It really intrigues me, but I don’t know if it intrigues me ENOUGH to actually read it, if that makes sense 😉

  13. I liked this one a lot and you’re right that because people with money have access to better healthcare we do already play this game. On a global level actually!

    It does ask some great questions though!

  14. I liked The Unit better than Never Let Me Go too. I liked that I knew more of what was going on (which I’m sure is because the characters know more of what’s going on in this book). I was disappointed that I didn’t get to learn more about the whole dystopian world of Never Let Me Go, and I felt the author of The Unit did a much better job in that respect.

    The plot definitely raises a lot of issues for discussion, and I was heartbroken by the ending.

  15. This sounds incredibly thought provoking. I haven’t read an adult dystopian novel in a long time.

  16. Jenners says:

    This sounds really cool … and a bit more interesting than “Never Let Me Go,” which has a similar theme.

  17. zibilee says:

    I really want to read this book and almost bought a copy the other day. Looks like I am going to have to go shopping again, because you have really stirred up a lot of interest in me with your post. Thanks for the great review!

  18. Julie P. says:

    I’m not sure this book appeals to me…at first. However, I do think it would make an excellent discussion book.

  19. stacybuckeye says:

    I’ve been on the fence about this one. Creepy but thought provoking. I’d have to be in the right mood.

  20. Ti says:

    Us readers, apparently we are dispensable. At least according to that quote.

    i didn’t mention it in my review, because it didn’t really bother me until after it posted, but I didn’t really buy the relationship between Johannes and Dorrit. It seemed a tad unrealistic to me. Just a tad.

  21. It really did make me think about the current state of our healthcare system. And it’s scary that I could actually envision such a world.

  22. Pingback: Steph & Tony Investigate! » Blog Archive » You take the good, you take the bad…

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