Review: The Unit

The Unit Book Cover

The Unit
By Ninni Holmqvist
Translated by Marlaine Delargy
Other Press
June 2009

The Short of It:

The Unit is a cold, stark look at a world controlled by social engineering where a person’s value is reduced to categories such as “dispensable” or “necessary.”  Holmqvist creates a sterile, haunting tale that is surreal yet also a bit familiar.

The Rest of It:

Dorrit is 50 years-old, single with no children. Although she has lived a decent life, owned her own home and worked as a writer, she is dispensable. Meaning, that she has nothing else to provide society as a whole, except the organs that continue to keep her body alive.  This means that she must live out her life at the Second Reserve Bank Unit for Biological Material.

“The Unit” is deceptively pleasant. Picture a gorgeous resort, complete with spas, recreational facilities, gyms, pools, libraries, lots of restaurants to eat in and beautiful gardens. Add to that, well-appointed apartments and access to the best medical care. All of this for nothing. Well, not quite. As the residents live out their lives, they are subjected to medical experiments and research trials that include mind-altering drugs, rashes, painful skin ailments, or…organ donation if the Unit requires it. As you can imagine, some organ donations could mean the end of the line for the resident. They call this, the “final” donation and it gave me chills every time I came across the term.

Although there are rules and 24-hour surveillance cameras, the residents grow accustomed to life in the Unit and actually begin to look forward to when they can once again be necessary and contribute whatever is needed to those on the outside. As Dorrit settles into her new life, she doesn’t expect to find love so she is quite surprised when she does. This added element of complication, forces her to consider her options. None of which seem ideal.

The Unit is highly stylized in the telling. As a reader, I found myself completely absorbed in the actual structure of the Unit itself. It seemed very modern, but not too far into the distant future which was a bit unsettling to me. The author paints a bleak, chilling tale yet everyone is pleasant…polite and even caring which is surprising in that cold, antiseptic environment. The residents and staff treat each other with great respect. They function for the good of society and all seem willing to contribute in their own way. It’s frightening really. It’s perfect in one sense but completely horrific in another.

Holmqvist does an excellent job of touching on the issues. Ageism, the ability to contribute, value and self-worth are all themes here. But. I was a tad disappointed with the development of many of the characters. All of them seemed to be somewhat guarded. I wanted more emotion. There was some, but certain situations called for more. There was a numbness to them. Perhaps that was intended, given their circumstances. Needless to say, I felt a bit detached from them.

Overall, I will still recommend it to anyone who enjoys dystopian fiction, because it was good, and well written, but it didn’t leave me with the broad, sweeping… save the world feeling that I usually get from other novels like it.

Source: Purchased

22 thoughts on “Review: The Unit”

  1. I just finished this book last week! I had the same reaction to the book. The whole situation felt almost plausible. I caught myself thinking, Oh, that’s not so bad, then realizing what exactly I was rationalizing.

    1. I did the exact same thing. No one ever was asked to make a final donation right when they got there. They almost always used them for some other purpose first. Two to three comfortable years with no rent, job responsibilities, etc. Not a bad gig. Then I thought.. what?!?

  2. This sounds fantastic! It kind of makes me think of a more serious and intense version of The Island (an action movie; the premise, not the action). I enjoy stories like this, and I love translated fiction, so this would be perfect.

  3. I actually was very surprised that it was so pleasant to live in The Unit. Because it’s not like they would have to do that. After all, it’s not like you can report back to the population. (although I suppose the staff could, but they could make the staff sign non-disclosure agreements or something! LOL) How Scandinavian-esque, I thought, that the government made it so nice for non-voting, about-to-die citizens. I don’t know if you’ve ever been to an “active adult community” of which there are now gazillions, but even though you pay for everything, even the swankiest are not as nice as The Unit. One can really see that it’s not such a bad place to end up, considering the alternatives….

    1. My in-laws live in a Del Webb community out in Palm Desert and I thought of that place while reading this book. It is so nice and glitzy on the outside but if you spend any kind of time there, you see the ambulances taking the bodies away daily. Seriously. We spent a week there once and it was hard to see those ambulances rolling without lights and sirens.

  4. I don’t read a lot of dystopia but I really liked this one – maybe because I was 50 when I read it and I could just imagine people becoming complacent enough to let something like that happen.

    1. Yes!! It wasn’t shocking in the delivery. It was very subtle. If you really stopped to think about it, you could even rationalize the purpose of such a unit.

    1. I know. I must be insane or something. I love Dystopian Fiction. I eat it up. It somehow makes me feel good about what I have. If nothing else, I sure have learned how to stock a pantry for a disaster. LOL.

  5. The Unit sounds very similar to Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go. In this story people are born just so they can donate their body parts. They also live separately from the people to whom they will donate their organs.

    1. I haven’t read Never Let Me Go, but you and another blogger said the same thing, that The Unit and NLMG are quite similar. I guess they are making NLMG into a movie too. I want to read the book before the movie comes out.

  6. I just read Jill at Rhapsody in Book’s review of this … and now you read it too. I think I need to add it to the list. It sounds kind of fascinating.

  7. I loved, loved, loved this book! There was just something so fascinating about Dorrit and her choice to remain at the Unit and its haunted me since. I actually found the book to be rather emotional, or perhaps I was allowing my emotions to filter into my reading frame of mind 🙂 I’m glad you enjoyed the book, Ti! Definitely one of my fave reads this year!

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